The Terrorist



India 1998
director / cinematography : Santosh Sivan
script : Sivan, Ravi Despanade, Vijay Deveshwar
editing : Sreekar Prasad
music : Sonu Sisupal, Rajamani
lead actors : Ayesha Dharker, Vishwas, Vishnu Vardhan, Bhanu Prakash
95 minutes

Hats off to John Malkovich for ‘presenting’ The Terrorist – i.e. rescuing it from the obscurity of the festival circuit. This is a strikingly intelligent, inventive picture of the kind that deserves – but too often fails to receive – international distribution and recognition. Star Ayesha Dharker has even secured a reportedly prominent role in Star Wars Episode II, though working on the Lucas behemoth will almost certainly represent a distinct step down, both in terms of artistic merit and actual on-screen time – let’s hope she fares better than poor Terence Stamp, so idiotically underused in Phantom Menace.

Dharker is seldom far from the camera here – it’s essentially a character study of her teenage guerilla Malli, but the focus is sufficiently intense to make the results much closer to thriller territory. She starts the film just one among countless young zealots, notable for the exploits of her father and brother, nationalist freedom fighters both: “Patriotism and valour are in your blood!”, as one of her organisation’s bosses puts it. This background is part of the reason why she’s selected for a suicide mission against an unspecified enemy ‘VIP’ – she’s to be transformed into “a thinking bomb. an unfallible weapon.”

The film charts her progress as she leaves the guerilla camp and undertakes a perilous cross-country journey to her fatal rendezvous – she’s shown part of the way by an even younger cog in the revolutionary wheel: river-crossing expert Lotus (Vishwas), fearless kin of Tarkovsky’s Ivan from Ivan’s Childhood. Posing as a student, she stays with a family of simple farmers as she prepares for the big day and contemplates her destiny – but doubts start surfacing in her mind.

The Terrorist hits the ground running, with a first half of exciting action that follows Malli from the guerilla camp into the gorgeous, perilous countryside. When she arrives at the farm, the pace seems to lag – but in retrospect you realise this isn’t a problem (this, in fact, a rare instance of a film that somehow gets better and better the more you think about it.) Malli must adjust to the different rhythms of rural, family life, and so must we. The payoff is a final five minutes of almost unbearable suspense as Malli sways between her two alternatives: the uncertainties of life, or the absolute finality of martyrdom. Now we see that director Sivan has taken what seemed to be incidental pleasures, transient grace notes, and made out of them a network of interlocking images that suddenly click together in memory, to make perfect psychological sense.

Shortly after the start, Malli washes a blood-stained cotton ‘mask’ she’s worn to carry out an ‘execution’, then releases it into the river, watching as the current sucks away this eerie ‘face.’ Later, she holds one of her long black hairs between her hands, stares at it, snaps it. Water droplets on a leaf shiver, then quickly coagulate. What we’re seeing is nothing less than the dawning of self-realisation – an individual, having left her ‘hive,’ coming to terms with her own identity, responsibilities, powers.

On what’s clearly a very low budget, he nimbly evokes the humid, hot-house atmosphere of an environment that’s an ideal climate for rapturous fervour: Malli’s breath is amplified to dominate the soundtrack, blending with stirring, martial chorales and sinuous woodwinds. The surrounding verdure encroaches, camouflages, smothers – and in this half-light it’s hard to distinguish between tears, rain, blood and sweat. It’s as if Malli has never noticed the amazing natural environment that surrounds her – again recalling Tarkovsky, the film takes the ‘last day on earth’ opening of Solaris and expands it to feature length without losing any of that remarkable, all-senses-heightened impact.

It’s easy to see why Malkovich in particular would be attracted to this story – he’s already been this way before, via Mitch Leary in In The Line Of Fire. But this time there’s no Eastwood figure to foil the assassin’s meticulous plans – everything is down to Malli herself. It’s her decision whether she fufils what’s presented as her biological destiny and puts her ‘thumbprint on the world’, or obeys her own body’s more specific imperatives. There are only two possible outcomes, but the ending’s still a surprise – the shock waves reverberate far beyond the closing credits.

11th July, 2001
(seen at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, Jul-4-01)
by Neil Young
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