Recently receiving more notoriety in the U.S. with his theatrically released (via Merchant-Ivory Productions) Before the Rains, Santosh Sivan has a much stronger 1999 film on his resume that all arthouse lovers should place in their Netflix queue: The Terrorist. As visually poetic and slow-paced as Terrence Malick, Sivan's film relentlessly probes the mind of a 19-year old girl on a suicidal assassination mission. Loosely based on the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi (seventh Prime Minister of India) by a female member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the film is set during the civil war in Sri Lanka, but it's not essential to know details about the complicated conflict. Sivan's canvas is far more universal . . . and personal.
Exploring similar terrain that Hany Abu-Assad later mines in Paradise Now, Sivan eschews the political for a surgical exploration of the personal side of a terrorist. Via flashbacks we learn the motivations of beautiful Malli (Ayesha Dharkar)—how her brother was killed in the rebel cause, and now the young orphan has dedicated her life to the cause. She is selected for a special mission to place a garland around a VIP's neck, bow for his blessing, and push a red button that will blow them to bits. Since Sivan refrains from exploring the political justification in detail, we don't want Malli to succeed. It seems so pointless for her to sacrifice her future for a nebulous cause, yet we fear that she will press forward just as she's done her whole brief life.
Although violence occurs, Sivan's camerawork deftly uses impressionistic techniques to make it more palatable to a wider audience. An early execution suggests a spray of blood followed by a long shot of the victim, but the best example occurs as Malli makes her way through a maze of underground rebels. At a river crossing, 14 year old Lotus (Vishwas) guides her through the jungle, helping her avoid booby traps and land mines. Also an orphan, Lotus has served over twenty previous rebels who never return and he soon grows attached to his latest client. A pure soul who abhors killing, he weeps when an enemy truck approaches a land mine: "There will be blood everywhere."
After Malli arrives at her destination, she meets her terrorist co-conspirators and practices for her coming assignment. Under the guise of studying agriculture, they house her with talkative farmer Vasu (Parmeshwaran), who compares her to the positive life force of flowers: "A flower is the earth smiling." Indeed, Malli's delightfully expressive eyes and smile light up the screen, whether she reveals them naturally with the farmer or acts with them when her fellow rebels demand she do so to gain the V.I.P.'s trust. Vasu says that he knows what Malli's mission is; and while it's extremely doubtful that he is aware of the suicide mission, he does guess a significant detail that complictes Malli's destiny.
Just what goes through the mind of a terrorist in the moments before their suicidal mission? Sivan's film may seem slowly paced to many, but his 95 minute film brilliantly pursues his simple but difficult subject as well as any to date. Minimal dialogue, stunning cinematography, and precisely edited sequences seamlessly weave the present and past together in a brilliant study—all the more compelling for the unforgetable and natural performance of the protagonist. The Terrorist demonstrates what a gifted filmmaker Santosh Sivan can be when left to his own devices. The only part that survives in his more recent Before the Rains is the notable location work in India and brilliant cinematography.