The Terrorist by Santosh Sivan (Review)

A moody, atmospheric Indian film about a suicide bomber who starts having second thoughts about her mission.
The Terrorist - Santosh Sivan

Normally, the Memorial Day weekend would’ve found me curled up on the recliner, sitting through a dozen or so movies over the course of the four days. However, I spent much of this past holiday weekend up in Council Bluffs for a wedding. I guess you have to have priorities sometimes. However, I did finally get a chance to sit down and watch a couple of flicks Monday morning, and it actually felt quite nice and refreshing to expose myself to some movies I’d been meaning to check out for awhile.

First up was The Terrorist, an Indian film about a suicide bomber who starts having second thoughts about her mission. Of course, given the current world situation, the film’s premise feels rather appropriate, and even prescient given that it was made in 1998. However, rather than a political ​“message” film or espionage thriller like I was expecting, The Terrorist is actually a very moody, atmospheric character study.

Those looking for political intrigue will probably be disappointed, as the film practically eschews the politics of the situation altogether. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on the internal agonies and stresses that Malli, the young woman selected for the mission, undergoes. Although Malli has been a terrorist ever since she was a little girl, it doesn’t seem that her world’s violence and bloodshed begins affecting her until she steps outside of her ​“sheltered” existence.

Posing as an agricultural student, she stays with a local farmer named Vasu while preparing for her mission. Although Vasu is a talkative old coot who seems to be in love with his own voice, he is also filled with a love for life and nature. This, combined with his concern for Malli (he treats her more like a daughter than a houseguest) and his comatose wife, begins to chip away at Malli’s black and white outlook and opens her eyes to the world around her. However, the final twist comes when Malli discovers that she’s pregnant. Before, she was willing to throw away her life for the cause, but what about the life of her unborn child?

As I’ve said, this is not a political thriller. There’s very little exposition throughout the movie, or at least it feels that way. Instead, the director loves to show us long, languorous shots of Malli as she wrestles, internally, with her mission. The film has style and atmosphere to spare, its camerawork reminiscent of Hong Kong cinema at times — the opening scene, where Malli executes a traitor, could’ve been lifted from a Johnnie To movie — and I got a major Wong Kar-Wai vibe at times.

I was also reminded of the few Iranian films I’ve seen, mainly due to film’s meditative pacing and gorgeous, affecting images. One especially affecting shot finds Malli, dressed in a white gown for her suicide run, caressing her belly (and her unborn child) — only to then strap on the explosive belt. And the film’s final shot, which could’ve been taken from any Majid Majidi film, is a powerful image, though those looking for all of the loose ends and intrigues to be tied up will probably leave disappointed or just plain perplexed.

There are times when the film could use a bit more exposition. As lovely as Ayesha Dharker (Malli) is, one can only take so much her staring pensively into the camera as the rain washes down her thick black hair. However, the film does pack a considerable punch. And given today’s rhetoric-filled climate, as political leaders on all sides bluster and rant, the film’s final, evocative image is as powerful a statement on war as I’ve ever seen.

Read more reviews of Santosh Sivan.