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'Terrorist, The'

New film from India puts human face on terrorism

Saturday, July 22, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Terrorist," a film from India now at the Denis Theater, tries to put a face on those who utilize violence to further their political gains. At the same time, it demonstrates how terrorism strips the humanity from both its victims and its adherents.

"The Terrorist"

Rating: Unrated; contains violence, vulgar language and brief sexuality.

Starring: Ayesha Dharker, Parmeshweran.

Director: Santosh Sivan.

Critic's call: 3 stars.


This impressive first feature from director and co-writer Santosh Sivan focuses on Malli (Ayesha Dharkar), a 19-year-old woman who appears to have spent half her life fighting in a revolutionary army. Malli's parents were killed by the enemy. Her brother died as a martyr to the cause.

Now Malli has been enlisted for a similar fate. She has been chosen as a suicide bomber whose mission is to kill an official referred to only as "the VIP" (by all accounts, the movie takes its inspiration from the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi). She believes this to be a great honor that will advance the cause of her people.

When we first meet Malli, she has just shed a mask after shooting a traitor. She is but one of many orphaned children who have been turned into soldiers. Some go by code names. Malli is simply "one of the girls from Camp 7," an interchangeable part.

How else do you get people to volunteer for suicide missions except by making the cause more important than the person? When she meets the revolutionary leader, we never see his face nor hear his name. He utters boilerplate rhetoric about the great meaning of her sacrifice and all that.

The revolutionaries secrete her at the home of a farmer, Vasu (Parmeshwaran), who is unaware of the plot. He is told she is a cousin of the man who drops her off, and that she is doing agricultural research.

But here, she is treated like an individual for maybe the first time since her family was killed. When she pulls a simple blouse from the suitcase of clothes made especially for her, she holds it to her face and acts as if she has never owned such a luxurious garment.

Most of all, however, she comes under the spell of Vasu, a talkative, seemingly silly old man who talks in allegories but whose humanity wraps itself around her. He has experienced his own tragedies, but he perseveres.

The germ of doubt gets planted in her mind and begins to grow, especially once Vasu tells her what he knows. And it's not what she expects.

Even so, the cause is powerful enough to make her waver. She seems to have good reason to hate the regime that her group is battling, but we've seen enough of how the revolutionaries do business to wonder if they're any better.

One of the best scenes in the film involves the reaction of Lotus (Vishwas), a hardened boy who guides Malli through the jungle and past the government soldiers, when he sees someone killed up close. He softens enough to tell Malli his real name and his background, to reclaim his identity and his vulnerability just for a moment before putting on his war face again.

So will Malli detonate the bomb or not? The suspense becomes gripping because we've come to care very much about this young woman with the big doe eyes. What can we think then about the cause that would destroy her?

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