For a pacifist film made on a thread of a budget ($50,000), The Terrorist manages to pack enough gore into its opening sequences to satisfy a commercial distributor with or without the patronage of John Malkovich, who adopted the Indian picture after seeing it at a festival in Cairo. Then, give or take a splash of blood on the lens, the violence is over, and the movie, which owes more to Satyajit Ray than to Bollywood, becomes an intimate study of a suicide bomber in her final days of preparation for taking out a politician who — according to her unnamed, unseen Leader — is obstructing the goals of their freedom movement.
Nineteen-year-old Malli, played with mute intensity by the stunning Indian actress Ayesha Dharkar, has been reared on a diet of martyrdom and vengeance that has fashioned her into an obedient and ruthless killer. Nationalist pride and the rigors of revolutionary training in the Sri Lankan jungle have all but emptied her mind of the interests that might be expected to preoccupy a young woman her age. The Leader, urging her to become “a thinking bomb” as she carries out the task for which she’s been handpicked from a bevy of eager young guerrilla girls, fails to take into account that placing Malli undercover in a more quotidian setting, while she psyches herself to strap on a belt packed with explosives, will give her time not only to think, but, for the first time in her life, to feel, unprodded by propaganda. Billeted with an unsuspecting old farmer, Vasu (Parmeshwaran), Malli is flooded with memories and sensations she can barely contain, let alone process.
Inspired by events surrounding the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, The Terrorist was shot, co-written and directed by Santosh Sivan, the Indian cinematographer who works with the eminent director Mani Rathnam (Roja). Turning a tight budget to his advantage, Sivan plays to his strengths. The movie is shot in tight close-up; Malli, who appears in almost every frame, rarely speaks except to grunt assent to her handlers or evade the nosy inquiries of the garrulous Vasu. Her surging inner life expresses itself through her ragged breathing or the ripple of water over her palms, punctuating memories of losses devastating enough to have destroyed a woman twice her age. And if Sivan serves up more shots than we need of raindrops trembling on Malli‘s sodden blue-black hair, such symbolic excess nonetheless offers a jarring conjunction of violence and beauty that bears witness to her confusion. The cloistered monomania of her life until now has rendered Malli almost feral. She is no more prepared for the emotional and physical comforts of her newfound, tragically temporary domesticity than she is for the traumatic scenes from the past that crowd her head. At 19, Malli has to be told by the farmer what it means when she starts throwing up every morning. She’s as unnerved by the old man‘s kindness as she is by the discovery that his comatose wife appears to be staring at her through a hole in the wall while she obsessively rehearses deploying her deadly weaponry.
In the end, it is less Malli’s scarred past or her likely future that unsettles than her pitiful overreaction to an empty bird‘s nest, or to the freshly laundered sari and perfume she is to wear for her big day. Though The Terrorist tells us nothing directly about war in India and Sri Lanka, it speaks to a kind of politics. Malli is a heartbreaking reminder of all the wars whose frontlines are currently held by the very young, wars that have robbed them not only of family and friends, but of their childhoods as well.