Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Santosh Sivan
Stars: Ayesha Dharkar, Vishnu Vardhan, Parmeshwaran, Bhanu Prakash, K Krishna, Sonu Sisupal, Vishwas, Anuradha, Gopal.
Actor John Malkovich first came across the award winning Indian film The Terrorist while he was serving on a festival jury in Cairo, where the film was in competition. So impressed was he with the compelling narrative and the film’s economic style that he has championed its release in America and other western markets often denied to mainstream Indian films.
However, The Terrorist has more in common with Shekhar Kapur’s brilliant and devastating Bandit Queen than it does with the traditional lightweight musical comedies that traditionally comprise the bulk of mainstream Indian cinema. Loosely inspired by events surrounding the 1991 assassination of Prime Minister Ranjiv Gandhi, The Terrorist tells the story of a 19 year old female terrorist chosen to act as a human bomb in an attempt to blow up a VIP.
Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) has already proved herself in combat. Her older brother is already a martyr for the cause, and she has executed traitors in cold blood. She is chosen by the rebel group’s anonymous leader for the role of suicide bomber, whose mission is to kill a VIP and thus further promote their cause. In the days leading up to the assassination attempt, Malli is billeted with Vasu (Parmeshwaran), an elderly farmer. But during the tense waiting period, Malli begins to have doubts about her mission and her future. She also makes an unexpected connection with Vasu’s ill wife, who has lain in a comatose state for the past seven years.
While The Terrorist does little to illuminate the complex politics of India that have led to this bloody struggle it does put a human face on these terrorists, the fanatics prepared to kill or die for their beliefs and to further their often futile causes. It also painfully illustrates how the main victims of any war seem to be the women, children and the innocent.
The Terrorist is the first feature film from renowned Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan. His background shows in the lush images of the film, which often contrast with the bloody violence that underpins the narrative. Much of the violence actually occurs off camera, and the film is all the more powerful and shattering through its use of suggestion. Water is one image that continually reappears throughout the film, and obviously has some sort of symbolic importance. Sivan also works in close up, which adds an oppressive feel to the material.
The central performance of newcomer Dharkar is the key to the film, and, in a largely wordless performance, she beautifully portrays the uncertainties, the doubts and the drive of her character. She is in nearly every scene, and does a tremendous job of eliciting sympathy for her character.
The Terrorist was actually filmed on a tight budget of $50,000 in 17 days, and it lacks the polish and production values of films like Bandit Queen. Its limitations are sometimes obvious in the look of the film. But what Sivan has achieved with limited resources is nothing short of amazing!