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The Terrorist (1998)

(Caution : this review reveals details of the film that may spoil it for some viewers.)

Inspired by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (May 21, 1991), fueled by two questions--what would make a young woman blow herself up in such an assassination attempt and what might potentially make her not do it--and funded by a meager $50,000, Santosh Sivan shot this remarkable first film in just over two weeks, using mostly non-professional actors.  He hypnotizes and horrifies in about equal measure as he tells the story of Malli, played by the beguiling Ayesha Dharker, a 19 year old Tamil revolutionary, daughter of a nationalist poet and sister of a legendary martyred brother, who is chosen to attempt the suicide bombing of an Indian "VIP".  It is a mark of his excellence as a filmmaker that Mr. Sivan makes us care for and even root, at least a little bit, for Malli, but a mark of his basic decency that he can't bring himself to let her go through with her attack.

The film is broken into roughly four parts.  When we first meet Malli she's a brutal and efficient young killer--in the jungles of what is apparently either Sri Lanka (the dialogue is in Tamil) or Southern India--slitting the throat of a traitor.  Then she's chosen from among a group of girls competing for the honor of undertaking an important mission.  The "Leader"--we're not told the leader of what, nor shown his face--calls her a "thinking bomb" and sends her off on her mission

She's led to the coast by an even younger boy named Lotus.  He's been terribly traumatized by violence and with his vulnerability and his desire for friendship begins the process of rehumanizing Malli.  When she kills a soldier in front of him it obviously horrifies him and she begins to see herself through this innocent boy's eyes.

From the coast she is taken by members of a local terrorist cell to stay with an addled and talkative old man named Vasu, who seems at first to be only a comic figure.  But over the course of her four day stay, she discovers that he tenderly cares for a bedridden wife, who's not spoken or walked since the death of their son, seven years earlier.   Vasu also reveals himself to be quite wise in his own way and a fairly acute observer of the human condition.  In the midst of her plotting and practicing for the assassination, Vasu informs Malli that she is pregnant (in flashbacks we see her chance encounter with another young guerilla who dies shortly thereafter).  The prospect of motherhood suddenly gives her a stake in life and causes her to doubt her mission.

In the film's final section Malli's cohorts stiffen her resolve and she goes ahead with the plot.  In one of the most harrowing, though simple, scenes in the movie, she straps the belt of plastic explosives over her belly, her navel seeming almost a vortex of life being violated by this weapon of death.  The plan calls for her to go with a group of young women who are greeting the visiting VIP, to place a garland around his neck and then kneel before him for a blessing, at which point she need just press down on a red button to detonate the bomb.  The film's ending is left somewhat ambiguous, though she appears to decide against the final step.

This is all remarkably difficult to watch.  Though the pace is fairly languid and the storytelling is almost all done with water-drenched visuals, the tension of the film remains taut because we're watching this reasonably likable and very lovely girl march towards an inexplicable fate.  One interesting question arises : does Malli appeal so much to us because she's more sensitive, more humane, than a real suicide bomber, one who we sense can be stopped, or are suicide bombers really like this and we just can't comprehend such a possibility.  I choose to believe the former, though I recognize my need to believe it may not make it so.  Santosh Sivan seems to believe the same and while it makes the film satisfying on an emotional level, one has to wonder if it doesn't compromise the story on an intellectual level.  I like that it's life affirming, but are we kidding ourselves?

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Ayesha Dharker that shows how much wishful thinking may be involved in her portrayal of Malli  :

    These people are not that interested in the larger political reverberations of what they are doing. In fact, they don't even know what the impact
    of their actions is. I think if you are molded by that sort of society, martyrs become the patron saints of your organization. You're constantly fed,
    sort of brainwashed by leaders, by people who you look up to. I found a photo of five girls--18, 19, and lethal, they kill without any compunction
    at all. It's a job, and that's what they're good at. I had the impression that each of them wanted to be noticed, to be recognized for something.
    I think that's a very human quality. It's a peculiar mixture of selfishness, because that desire is so strong, and selflessness, because you're giving
    yourself up, for something you'll never see.

    I think you're not human unless your choices are your own, and her choices are not her own. Her choice is for life, and not to destroy herself
    and whatever little humanity she has managed to muster or recover. There is hope in that.

    Girls like her are actually sent by their families into organizations like this. They can't afford to marry them or educate them, so they send them
    into this kind of thing, and if they die, the family gets compensation of a certain amount of money. So it's almost like they're doing it for their
    families as well.

We'd certainly like to hope that the explanations are this rational and that a simple matter of choice might turn these girls around, but the fact remains that there is a suicide bombing fad in the Middle East right now.  Are the bombers not human?  If they were human, would they, like Malli, be plagued by doubts and have to reconsider their course of action?  Is it really possible that simple human contact and a reason to live would penetrate their fanaticism and serve to deprogram them?

It's no surprise that the film can't answer these extraordinarily difficult questions.  And we should probably just be thankful that it raises them in such a thought-provoking way.  This would be a remarkable movie at any time, but in the current climate of terror it is especially welcome.  It's provocative and affecting and deeply disturbing in ways that we may need to be disturbed right now.  Maybe we can never understand what such people are thinking when they hit the red button, but if we're ever going to get them to stop we probably need to try to figure it out.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

(2 movies reviewed)
    -INFO : The Terrorist (1999) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Santosh Sivan (Imdb)
    -Santosh Sivan
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Ayesha Dharker (
    -INTERVIEW : The unmaking of a terrorist (Shobha Warrier, Rediff)
    -INTERVIEW : An interview with the director, Santosh Sivan, and leading actress, Ayesha Dharkar, of The Terrorist (David Walsh,  9 October, 1998, World Socialist Web Site)
    -INTERVIEW : Interview With Santosh Sivan (David Walsh,
    -INTERVIEW : Indian Indie : The Terrorist director speaks out (The Context, 11 May 2001)
    -INTERVIEW : CineMaa - An Interview with Santosh Sivan
    -INTERVIEW : Something about Santosh Sivan (, September 2000)
    -PROFILE : Santosh records the changing seasons of life while filming Asoka (Kodak, January 2001)
    -PROFILE : Independent Spirit - Santosh Sivan (Fashion India)
    -PROFILE : Santosh Sivan - Shooting the Terrorist (ClickWalla)
    -ARCHIVES : Santosh Sivan (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : Santosh Sivan (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEWS : The Terrorist (Metacritic)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : The perverse logic of suicide terrorism (Robert Fulford, The National Post, December 8, 2001)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (A.O. SCOTT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist (Peter Preston, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (LIZ BRAUN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Examiner)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Alexander Walker, This is London)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Michael Thomson, BBCi)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Jeremiah Kipp,
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Tanmeet Kumar, Planet Bollywood)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (ROD ARMSTRONG,
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (George O. Singleton, Reel Movie Critic)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (GEMMA FILES, Eye)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Ella Taylor, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Peter Henné, Film Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Urban Cinefile)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (Chris Dashiell, CineScene)
    -REVIEW : of The Terrorist  (David Walsh and Joanne Laurier, World Socialist Web Site)
    -REVIEW : of Dil Se (Anish Khanna, Planet Bollywood)

    -ARTICLE ARCHIVES : Killing of the Indian Prime Mnister Rajiv Gandhi
    -ARTICLE : 26 sentenced to death in Rajiv Gandhi assassination (January 28, 1998, CNN)
    -Eliminate LTTE Terrorism
    -ARCHIVES : "rajiv gandhi" (Find Articles)

    -ESSAY : The UN should probe the suicide bomber cult (Robert Fulford, The National Post, April 27, 2002)