Credit must go to John Malkovich for discovering and tirelessly promoting this remarkable film from first-time Indian director Santosh Sivan. Malkovich first saw The Terrorist when serving as a jury member at the Cairo Film Festival, where it won awards for best film, best director, and a special prize for its leading actress.
Although inspired by the assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Sivan’s film is no political tract but a powerful psychological study of a brainwashed young fanatic who is torn apart by her experiences as a suicide bomber. 19-year-old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) lives in a guerrila camp in the Sri Lankan jungle. She’s totally devoted to the cause, as are the rest of a small army of young freedom fighters. Thrilled to be selected as the person to kill a visiting politician across the water in India, Malli is told by the leader that he wants her to become a ‘thinking bomb.’ But the trouble with a thinking bomb is that it has the potential to defuse itself.
The young protagonist’s painful progress from blind fanaticism to an appreciation of the precious nature of ordinary human existence is captured in a series of vivid images by Sivan, a gifted cameraman who has spent much of his career photographing mainstream Bombay movies. The Terrorist is nothing like a Bollywood epic, but it looks remarkably good for a low-budget independent film. Sivan makes highly effective use of enormous close-ups, unusual camera angles and discordant sounds as he attempts to capture Malli’s troubled state of mind. At the heart of the film is a stunning performance by Dharkar, whose haunting features manage to give political extremism a human face.oPeter Walsh. (India, 1998. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo. 94 mins.)