"The Terrorist", the 1998 directorial debut of acclaimed Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan, is essentially a coming of age tale, though it is hardly the sort of film that you would normally associate with the genre. The film's hero is 19-year old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar, who will appear as Queen Jamillia in "Star Wars Episode II"), a young woman who has spent much of her life in the South Indian jungle as a revolutionary soldier. Having grown up with the daily horrors of guerilla warfare and lost her older brother to the 'cause', Malli doesn't hesitate when it comes to gunning down government soldiers or executing traitors.
Thus, when the faceless leader of her revolutionary movement (Sonu Sisupal) asks for a volunteer for a suicide bombing, she enthusiastically steps forward, prepared to lay down her life in the name of securing freedom for her people. Impressed by her moxie, the leader accepts Malli and sends her off to a nearby village, where she will infiltrate a welcoming celebration for an unnamed politician (only referred to as the 'VIP'), place a garland around his neck, and then detonate the plastic explosives tied around her waist. Malli will be the ultimate weapon-- a 'thinking bomb'.
However, as Malli gets closer to her objective, she increasingly begins to have second thoughts about her mission. Whereas Malli knew only blind obedience and the joy of killing her enemies while in the guerilla camp, in the 'real world', she quickly learns that there are consequences to her actions and that, up until that point, she has tasted only a fraction of the full spectrum of what life has to offer. Malli's first signpost on the journey is a young boy named Lotus (Vishwas), a guide whose cocky exterior quickly gives way to reveal a frightened and lonely child, an orphan not unlike herself. Unfortunately, Malli's impulsive killing of a soldier inadvertently results in the death of Lotus, kicking off the emotional maturation that will ultimately force her to re-examine the choice she is about to make.
When she arrives at a fishing village near the site of the assassination, she is given a room in the house of a farmer named Vasu (Parmeshwaran) under the false pretense of being an agricultural student. With only four days before the VIP's arrival, Malli's daily schedule is occupied by endless rehearsals with her superiors, who walk through the assassination and goad her with revolutionary slogans. When she is not practicing for the assassination, she comes to gain a better understanding of her host. Whereas Vasu at first comes across as a feeble-minded, talkative, and lecherous old man, these initial impressions give way as Malli comes to appreciate the beauty that he sees in his own simple life. Malli also finds comfort in how he treats her as his own daughter, providing her the emotional connection that her war-ravaged life had so long denied. And when Malli is confronted with a shocking discovery about her self, her whole perception of the suicide mission changes dramatically, as she begins to question the merits of the mission, as well as the revolutionary slogans that now sound hollow.
Inspired by the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi in 1991, "The Terrorist" was filmed over a three-week period in the backwoods of India using mostly non-professional actors and a shoestring budget. Despite such a diminutive production, Sivan is successful in creating a stunning and emotionally resonant film that explores the psyche of a would-be suicide bomber. As an accomplished cinematographer, Sivan uses combinations of hues and shadows to give his film a very rich cinematic look, as though each shot was painted onto the film. He also displays his penchant for casting his actors against out-of-focus backgrounds, which is used rather effectively to foreshadow imminent danger, such as Lotus' death at the hands of soldiers, and as Malli awaits the approach of the VIP.
Sivan also uses many tight close-ups when photographing Malli, capturing every bead of sweat, rain, or tears that hang over her unforgettable face, whose brooding features convey equal parts innocence and anguish. This approach is also well suited to Dharkar's performance, who uses the subtleties of facial expression to convey the increasingly conflicted feelings brought about by her character's transformation. Finally, to put the audience into the mindset of a would-be suicide bomber, Sivan also uses recurring flashbacks to help ascribe Malli's motivation for undertaking the mission, from the death of her brother when she was a child, to a bond she forms while caring for a fallen comrade in a darkened field.
Counted among the many fans of "The Terrorist" is actor John Malkovich, who secured the North American distribution rights for the film. As a result, this unconventional coming-of-age tale has found a home on the shelves of Blockbuster and other mainstream video rental outlets. Through this poignant examination of a suicide bomber's last days, Sivan offers a glimmer of hope with a world where even a 'thinking bomb' can come to appreciate the value of human life... including her own.