Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…
She is 19 years old and a soldier in a revolutionary movement. Her brother has died for the cause, and she has killed for it. A volunteer is needed for a suicide mission. She steps forward, fiercely and silently, and is accepted. She will become a "thinking bomb," and after she places a garland of flowers around a politician's neck, she will blow them both to pieces.
"The Terrorist" does not name its time or place, or the politician, but it seems broadly inspired by the 1991 assassination of India's Rajiv Gandhi. It is not a political film, but a personal one. If you have ever wondered what kind of person volunteers to become a human bomb, and what they think about in the days before their death, this film wonders, too.
And its director, Santosh Sivan, does something filmmakers find almost impossible. He follows this young woman without identifying with her mission. We do not want her to succeed. Films are such a first-person medium--they identify so strongly with their protagonists--that they generate sympathy even for evil: Did we want Hannibal Lecter to escape? Of course we did. And at the end of "The Day of the Jackal" (1973), we instinctively wanted the assassin to succeed, simply because we had been following him for two hours. Of course we think murder is wrong, but fiction tends to argue for its heroes. Consider Crime and Punishment .
In "The Terrorist," we do not want the girl, named Malli, to succeed. That's despite the way the movie paints her loyalty to her cause, and the possibility that her cause is right. The movie is quiet and persuasive as it shows Malli learning more about her life--in what may be her last days-- than she ever knew before.
Played by Ayesha Dharkar, a young actress with expressive eyes and a beauty that is innate, not cosmetic, Malli doesn't talk much, and we sense that she has deep wounds; her brother's death in the same cause suggests a painful background. After she volunteers for the mission, she is passed along an underground network of conspirators to the farm where she will spend her final days. One of her guides is a boy of 13 or 14 named Lotus (Vishwas), who leads her down the center of a shallow river and shows her where to step to avoid land mines and booby traps. He has guided many others this way, he says; they have all later been killed. When a truck blows up, he weeps: "There will be blood everywhere." No more than a child, he is traumatized by his life.
Also on the journey, she meets a young soldier who is mortally wounded. In a scene of great delicacy, she cradles him on the forest floor, and he whispers that he has never been so close to a woman in his life. Nor, we sense, has she ever been so close to a man. Just as Sivan makes a movie that does not identify with its violent mission, so he creates a love scene that is not about sex, but communication, surcease, healing.
Eventually Malli arrives at a farm and is given a room of her own. We meet the farmer Vasu (Parmeshwaran) and his helper. These are characters to remind us of the gentle humor of the great Indian novelist R.K. Narayan. Their philosophy and religion are part of their lives, and the farmer tells Malli: "A flower is the earth smiling." He always sets an extra place at dinner, for his wife, who is in a coma and has not stirred for seven years. Malli sees the woman in the room next to her own, staring sightlessly at nothing.
Malli's terrorist contact and his sidekick rehearse her carefully, and select clothing that will conceal the bomb strapped around her middle. They are narrow functionaries, telling her that news of her action will go out to all the world. It is unclear if the farmer knows of her mission (I think he doesn't). He argues for life, not in words so much as in how he conducts his own existence.
Malli says little in the film. Sometimes the soundtrack uses the sound of quiet breathing, which places us inside her head. She regards herself in the mirror, and we intuit what she's thinking. Conversations she has with the farmer put her action in a new light, with new consequences. All leads up to an ending which is the right ending for this film, although few members of the audience will anticipate it.
There is no shortage of those prepared to sacrifice their lives to kill others and advance their cause. If we disagree with them, they are fanatics. If we agree, they are heroes. At least they are personally involved and prepared to pay with their lives, which in a sense is more moral than killing by remote control at long distance and calling it "modern warfare."
But what do they think? How do they feel? I've often wondered what goes through the mind of a condemned prisoner, who knows the exact hour of his death. How much stranger it must seem to be your own willing executioner: to die voluntarily because an idea is bigger than yourself. In my mind, the self is the biggest of all ideas; without it, there are no ideas. Does Malli arrive at this conclusion?
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