"The Terrorist" is a wonder several times over. Joining a compelling tale with exquisite photography and involving acting, it's a remarkable film by any standard but especially given the circumstances of its creation.
The story of a crisis of conscience in the young life of a committed revolutionary suicide bomber, "The Terrorist" is an Indian independent film, almost a contradiction in terms for a country whose passionate moviegoers are if anything more addicted to their "Bollywood" commercial cinema than Americans are to studio output.
Directed, co-written and photographed by the gifted Santosh Sivan, "The Terrorist" (though shot for $50,000 in 16 days) has a delicacy and artistry that is rare at any cost and any budget.
This is Sivan's first feature as a director, but he's not a film neophyte. He's worked as director of photography on some 20 features and twice that many documentaries and won India's National Film Award for cinematography nine times. The exhilarating visual sensibility he's brought to "The Terrorist" is the first thing you notice about it.
Exclusively using natural light in largely jungle situations, Sivan gives his settings a brighter than bright radiance. Colors are luminous (the greens especially pop out at you) and there's a crispness to his look that gives running water an extra sparkle. While images like a leaf in a stream, a glass of iced tea or a faded red guerrilla mask being river-washed may sound familiar, "The Terrorist" makes them indelible.
Though set in Sri Lanka, where the government has been contending with Tamil separatists for years, "The Terrorist" was more directly inspired by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. One of its intentions is to provide insight into the mind-set of people willing and even happy to die as martyrs as well as to examine what happens when the human cost of terrorism takes on a personal dimension.
The terrorist of the title is 19-year-old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar), the veteran of 30 successful operations who opens the film by coldly executing a traitor within her guerrilla group. A woman who kills without mercy or compunction, Malli will take human life several more times and never look back.
This ability to be "a thinking bomb" is why the leader of Malli's revolutionary group chooses her from a group of equally young, equally eager volunteers, to carry out a suicide mission: Get close to an important government official and set off a quantity of explosives strapped to your waist.
"The Terrorist" is deliberately shadowy about the makeup of this group and the legitimacy of their drive for independence. The barely glimpsed leader insists that "our struggle has a purpose, justice is on our side, we will shed our blood but not our tears," and pains have been taken to make he and his cohorts sound rational and sane. No judgment is offered about the rightness or wrongness of Malli's clandestine movement, nor is providing her--and us--the easy way out by presenting her group as obviously deluded.
The leader's words make a particular kind of sense to Malli, given her background. Her father was a nationalist poet; her brother, a famous martyr, was killed when she was small. Throughout her life she has known almost nothing but the Struggle and its world of guns, violence and betrayal. "If you were a man," a besotted female comrade-in-arms says, "I'd marry you."
But as Malli makes the physical journey from the jungle to the city where her suicide bombing is to take place, she takes an interior journey as well. She meets a traumatized young boy named Lotus (Vishwas), who serves as a guide, and also has memories of an unexpected assignation with a wounded fellow fighter (K. Krishna) who touchingly tells of having buried his beloved school books with the vow to dig them up again only after freedom is won.
Though most viewers will inevitably want Malli to have second thoughts about her mission, because the film is so delicately balanced and so fair to all sides, it's perfectly plausible for the opposite to take place.
Dharkar, the Indian actress who plays Malli, is in almost every shot of the film and "The Terrorist's" success would be less without her expressive performance. With her dark and deeply penetrating eyes, she looks out at us in a way that is familiar, terribly touching and, as it should be in the final analysis, all but unknowable.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: scenes of killing.
Ayesha Dharkar: Malli
Vishnu Vardhan: Thyagu
Bhanu Prakash: Perumal
K. Krishna: Lover
Sonu Sisupal: Leader
John Malkovich presents a Moderne Gallerie Motion Picture/WonderFilms production in association with Indian Image Productions, released by Phaedra Cinema. Director Santosh Sivan. Producers Shree Prasad, Jit Joshi. Executive producers Ravi Sunil Doshi, Vikram Singh, Mark Burton. Screenplay Santosh Sivan, Ravi Deshpande, Vijay Deveshwar. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Editor Sreekar Prasad. Music Sonu Sisupal, Rajamani. Production design Shyam Sunder. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
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