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India 1998
Directed by
Santash Sivan
95 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Terrorist

Synopsis: Malli (Ayesha Dhahkar) is a 19 year old Indian freedom fighter who comes from a family of revolutionaries. After the massacre of one of the rebel camps she volunteers for a suicide mission to assassinate a VIP, only to find that the decision is not as simple as she thought.

According to its publicity this film was apparently destined for obscurity from Western eyes until it was "discovered" by John Malkovich at the Cairo Film Festival. I was in trepidation lest this fanfare prove to be along the lines of "Orson Welles (or Francis Ford Coppola) presents…", the tagging of some (financially desperate) celebrity name to a product of decidedly inferior character. To my considerable surprise, The Shaven-Headed One was right - this is a film that deserves to be seen.

The Terrorist is a fine achievement. A relatively low-budget film, there are no big production scenes, attention-grabbing special effects or swooning pictorials. The story is simple and, bar the early part of the film, there is little action. In fact it's downright slow. Whilst being about a "revolutionary", other than a broad sympathy with her sense of commitment the film eschews the political aspects (we never find out who she is fighting for, or against) for a study of a particular revolutionary as a human being. And more remarkably, the result is achieved without any verbal revelation by Malli herself (who speaks very little throughout), or much in the way of drama action.

Director a cinematographer Sivan creates his portrait by deftly weaving together images, present to and remembered by his heroine, in a way which reminded me of Tarkovsky. Not that Sivan has the same style but both directors visually close in on the materiality of things to suggest their otherness to us and, hence, our inescapable transience when compared to them. And then there's the common motifs of water and mirrors, once again richly symbolic objects and substances for whom surface is all important. All this is filmed superbly with a wonderfully poetic sensibility yet one which is embedded in both the tragedies and the mundanities of life, here brought together in a highly effective narrative vehicle.

The result is a richly-textured portrait of an individual as constituted by, and in conflict with, the conditions of her existence. The excellent cast are apparently all non -professionals and Ayesha Dhahkar, although sometimes given to exaggerated expression, is compelling as the youthful fanatic who learns to see the world with different eyes.




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