IN A HOTHOUSE of revolutionary fervor, Malli lives in the jungle, dedicated to "the cause of freedom." When the Leader—a faceless figure revered by his young soldiers—plots a political assassination to win his cause a few minutes of media time, she volunteers for the suicide mission with the fierce determination of a holy warrior. "You're supreme," the Leader praises her, "a thinking bomb." Malli is orphaned and alone, and we wonder if her choice is merely dutiful or a martyr's death wish.
directed by Santosh Sivan
with Ayesha Dharkar
runs March 17-23 at Egyptian
Director Santosh Sivan keeps the politics abstract; it's a game of Us vs. Them in tight, unblinking close-up. From the opening execution of a traitor through the climactic assassination, his camera rarely leaves the landscape of Malli's girlish, tender face (she's memorably played by Ayesha Dharkar). This life, we come to understand, is all Malli has ever known. Yet harsh angles and harsher violence are interspersed with tender images of flowers bobbing in the rain and bubbling rivers; even a quiet jungle trail reveals booby traps hidden in the vines. Malli's memories of a night of passion with a wounded soldier—their faces drenched in perspiration and rain as the enemy approaches—never reveal any more than their whispering lips and frightened eyes. Acting as his own cinematographer, Sivan seems intent on communicating her insular experience in sensual, immediate detail, which sometimes feels alienating and burdensome.
But Malli's journey to martyrdom is complicated by the people she meets along the way. A sweet adolescent jungle guide's matter-of-fact confidence belies his youth and innocence, and she's hosted by the seemingly clownish Vasu, who turns out to be a kindly, sensitive humanist. Inexorably, the boundaries of her once-cloistered world begin to explode. As the date of her supreme sacrifice approaches, flashbacks of tragic romance haunt her, and a startling revelation by the observant Vasu forces the battle-hardened guerrilla to confront her inner 19-year-old child.
The Terrorist is ostensibly a political picture—it was inspired by the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi—but Sivan is far more interested in the people than the cause. Accordingly, he offers Malli the chance to rewrite her own life. Perhaps it's a fantasy, but there's something so loving in the gesture that it resonates long after the film is over.