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A Captivating 'Terrorist'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2000


    'The Terrorist Ayesha Dharkar plays a 19-year-old would-be assassin. (Phaedra Cinema)
In "The Terrorist," 19-year-old Malli is overjoyed to learn she has won the most significant competition of her life.

The other candidates for this honor, young female guerillas, too, congratulate her with unmistakable reverence. As the one chosen to undertake this mission, Malli is about to pass directly into legend.

After more congratulations from her superiors, a triumphant Malli (Indian actor Ayesha Dharkar) receives her instructions. When the VIP approaches the crowd, she'll step forward with a garland, place it around his neck, then kneel to receive his blessing.

As he leans over her, she'll push the small button underneath her dress, detonating the bomb that's wrapped around her waist. The explosion will be heard around the world.

"You're supreme, a thinking bomb," says her military leader, whom we never see in detail. In this extraordinarily poetic, suspenseful film, which Santosh Sivan co-wrote, filmed and directed on a shoestring (it was shot in 16 days for $50,000), details are kept to a deliberate minimum.

We don't know which country we're in, or the identity of the targeted politician. We don't even know the political affiliation of Malli's extremist group. But it's clear "The Terrorist" parenthetically touches on the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, as well as the revolutionary climates in India and Sri Lanka.

The effect is hypnotic. "The Terrorist" has the dramatic heft of good science fiction; it describes a seemingly invented world that mirrors our own. And with no political baggage – no mention of Tamil separatists or Sikh freedom fighters – we empathize with Malli, whose reality is rooted in revolution.

Her father, we learn, was a revolutionary poet. Her brother gave his life for the cause. Now it's up to Malli – veteran of 30 successful operations – to follow her family destiny; to continue the cycle. But as she prepares to leave for her mission – she needs to travel to a remote village to rehearse for the assassination – she catches the eye of a young boy. They exchange smiles. She remembers herself as a child being told not to cry at the funeral of her brother. And without realizing it, Milla's hardened outer layers peel away. This moment marks the beginning of her humanization. Without even realizing it, Malli is changing.

The movie has a countdown timetable every bit as exciting as, say, the one in "The Day of the Jackal." And "The Terrorist" literally waits until the last moment to show you how things turn out. But Sivan undercuts the bomb-ticking scenario with Malli's emotional journey. She remembers a recent, delicate encounter with a dying revolutionary who has never seen a woman so close up. She becomes very attached to the young guide, code name Lotus (Vishwas), who leads her across a river to her base of operations. And she forms a bond with the farmer who puts her up, as well as his comatose wife, an arresting woman recovering from a stroke, who lies in bed staring unblinkingly in Malli's direction.

Not surprisingly for a production that employed nonprofessional actors, the film has some inferior moments. Vishwas, the actor who plays Lotus, should not have been directed to be tearfully emotional; he doesn't have the chops. And Sivan favors a few too many shots of Malli's rain or tear-covered face, as well as scenes of her ritualistically washing her hair. As Malli, Dharkar is remarkably affecting. It's hard to imagine this movie without her. But for the most part, Sivan, a long-established cinematographer in India, makes her the center of a symphony of outstanding, sensual images. The union between his lens and her face is visually devastating.

THE TERRORIST (Unrated, 95 minutes) – Contains offscreen but disturbing violence and implicit sexual situations. In Hindustani with English subtitles.


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