The Terrorist (1999)

“I must sacrifice my future for the sake of my people.”

Deep in the jungles of Sri Lanka are camps full of orphan children. Following the death of her brother, Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is raised in one of these terrorist training camps and trains with Tamil separatist forces (the Tamil Tigers) fighting against the Sri Lankan government. It is said that the Tamil Tigers were the first terrorist group to perfect the ‘suicide bomber’, and they also frequently use females as assassins. In one of the first scenes in the film, Malli is called forward to execute a traitor. She’s a devoted fighter, and she doesn’t hesitate–along with 100s of other children, she’s waiting for a mission …

19-year-old Malli is chosen from dozens of girls to assassinate an unnamed VIP. The fact that she’s chosen to become a suicide bomber–a “thinking bomb”–is regarded as an honour, and her friends are envious. After a meal and a pep talk with the faceless, nameless ‘Leader’, Malli is photographed and told that these photographs will be sent all over the world following the assassination. Then Malli is taken out of the jungle to complete her task.

A small boy, Lotus (Vishwas) acts as Malli’s guide through the jungle down to the river where she is to take a boat for the next part of her journey. They make an incongruous pair–Lotus is nimble, knows the jungle, and can identify the booby traps lining the riverbank. But in spite of his skills and independence, he’s still a frightened little boy, and his attempts to bond with Malli are poignant–especially when they encounter difficulties, violence, and death on their journey.

When Malli arrives at her destination, she’s placed in a home of farmer Vasu (Parmeshwaran) who knows nothing about her mission–he think she’s just a student. Meanwhile Malli prepares for her task by long exercise sessions, and she’s measured for a suicide vest. During moments of indoctrination, Malli is reminded that her “sacrifice will inspire future generations.” Her leaders manipulate her with patriotic speeches and a call to duty.

Based on the real life events surrounding Rajiv Gandhi, this extraordinary film uses strong contrasts to make its point. Malli, for example, is on a mission of death, and we know from the very first scene, that she’s fully capable of murdering without hesitation or remorse. Yet at the same time, Malli begins to experience the joy of life while accepting her own death. Malli is a stunningly beautiful girl–with the face of a doe-eyed angel, and yet she can chop a man to bits with a machete. In the farmer’s home, she is accepted as a surrogate child, and she’s receptive to the traditional role they offer. Malli is withdrawn–almost silent, but at the same time, she’s too complex to be a completely sympathetic character.

Indian director Santosh Sivan completed the film in 17 days on a shoestring budget. Sivan’s cinematography is exquisite–vibrant colours fill the screen while the camera concentrates on a leaf sinking in water, or the steady fall of rain. Sivan’s spectacular cinematography reminds me strongly of Vertical Ray of the Sun–another astonishingly beautiful film. The Terrorist is an amazing film–one that will not easily be forgotten by its fortunate viewers. In Tamil with English subtitles.

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