War, as many have said, is created by old men to be fought by young men. In today's world that ancient adage must be amended to include young women. While many American kids stroll through their school years without much more to worry about than clothes and grades, too many of their foreign contemporaries are locked in brutal wars that fester across the globe, from the jungles of Colombia to those of Africa and Asia. We hear about these anonymous atrocities in an endless spew of headline news. But who are these teenage killers and why do they keep slaughtering one another?
Meet nineteen-year-old Malli, the title character in The Terrorist, a flawed but compelling independent film from India that turned a lot of heads at Sundance, Toronto, and other major film festivals. Her parents long dead, her brother a martyr-suicide for their family's unnamed cause, Malli has grown up amid an endless guerilla war and doesn't know any other life but bloodshed and revenge. Her dedication to killing is so absolute, she's not only willing, she's proud to be chosen as a suicide bomber to kill a visiting government official. But as she journeys to the planned site of her awful task, Malli's life takes a surprising turn. Unsettling feelings of sexual desire and kindness begin to undermine her fierce determination. Suddenly life begins to turn from a bloody death struggle into something rich and strange as softer, gentler forces begin to work on her.
Despite its title and subject matter, The Terrorist is a quiet, thoughtful film, more akin to the psychological portraits of Ingmar Bergman than La Femme Nikita. Told in ravishing visuals amid the gorgeous southern Indian countryside, The Terrorist takes us along on Malli's journey of self-discovery. The storyline certainly includes several brutal deaths and some sexual elements but these are handled with extreme delicacy.
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The film quickly sets up Malli as a cold-blooded killer who can dispatch a helpless prisoner of war without a moment's hesitation. Her dedication to her (unseen) leaders convince them to tap her for a top-secret mission. Her waist strapped with plastic explosives, Malli is to attend a reception for an Indian politician, step up to place a garland of flowers around his neck, then detonate the explosives that will blow both of them to pieces.
Steadfast in her purpose, Malli is sent across a dense jungle en route to the planned assassination site. She befriends her guide, a skinny local boy known as Lotus, whose charm begins to soften her hard heart. The journey is a dreamlike blend of menace and beauty, as lethal land mines and booby traps lie in wait amid a fairyland of waterfalls and tropical vegetation. When the pair meet heavily armed troops, Malli immediately snaps into guerrilla mode and finishes off an enemy soldier while Lotus watches, horrified. All in a day's work for Malli, but after another disturbing murder Malli begins to question her role in the cycle of violence.
Malli meets her guerrilla contact, who arranges her lodging with a farm family, passing Malli off as an agricultural researcher. While Malli and her terrorist leaders methodically rehearse her deadly task, she befriends her elderly host, an amateur philosopher whose funny and wise conversations further roil her now troubled mind. She's plagued with dreams and memories. And as the date of the planned murder approaches, Malli's emotional transformation becomes a direct threat to the plan's success. Her superiors begin to sense something is amiss with their terrorist.
In his directorial debut, Santosh Sivan, an experienced cinematographer, delivers a visually striking, evocative feature that, despite its technical and narrative shortcomings, offers considerable appeal, especially to those seeking relief from the usual slick-but-empty Hollywood fare. Sivan's inspiration for his story was the 1991 assassination of India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group in Sri Lanka that has been fighting a decades-long struggle against the Indian-backed government. As in this film, Gandhi's assassin was a teenage girl wearing a belt of plastic explosives.
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Shot in 1997 on a shoestring budget ($50,000 in seventeen days), Sivan used volunteer crews of local university students and mostly amateur actors to create the realistic appearance. There's a grit and authenticity to the story, recalling the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini's work in Italy from the 1950s. Sivan is his own cameraman here, delivering a tour de force of dynamic, visual storytelling.
He's also fortunate to have the lovely, compelling performance of Ayesha Dharkar as Malli, the sole professional in his cast. Dharkar is a sensual and striking screen presence but she's not merely a pretty face. When she first bursts onto the screen, she really looks like she could blow your face off if told to do so. Then she offers a mysterious and thoughtful side, and it's easy to see why her bosses would first choose her over other fanatics only to mistrust her intentions later.
Sivan's screenplay (written in Tamil with co-writers Ravi Deshpande and Vijay Deveshwar) is a simple narrative that holds interest for most of the film. Unfortunately the finale fails to deliver much of an emotional punch despite some clear opportunities. Sivan is great with images and ideas but he's got a way to go to understanding narrative suspense or surprise. The Terrorist is also plagued by a number of serious and mostly avoidable problems, the most obvious being terrible subtitles: Too many of them are illegible owing to poor graphics. Another annoyance is a musical score that careens from a portentous droning orchestral sound á la Prokofiev, to New Age treacle that seems to come from a Windham Hill sampler. While Sivan's direction allows the audience the dignity of deciding how to respond to his heroine, the score tries a Madison Avenue-style propaganda approach, telling the audience what to feel. Serious scenes of war? Bring on the portentous droning! Heartfelt emotional scene? Drop in the synthesized flutes!
Some of these problems can be laid at the feet of the domestic distributor, Phaedra Films, and the film's benefactor, John Malkovich, who discovered it while serving on the jury of the 1997 Cairo Film Festival. While he is to be credited for using his celebrity to showcase a worthy effort, he and Phaedra could have put a little more effort into helping Sivan. Yo, John, strike a master print for dupes, don't use the man's work print. Despite that, The Terrorist is a film of visual and intellectual power, marking a big step in Sivan's journey as an artist. If he can conjure such beautiful work from nothing, we can certainly expect much more of him in the future.