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Metro Pulse Sacrificial Lambs

An Indian film explores terrorism's personal, inner space.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 12, 2000:  She is 19 years old, deeply beautiful, quiet and dark-eyed. She is also a killer. Her name is Malli, and in the first five minutes of the moody parable The Terrorist, we see her shoot two men point-blank in the head. The movie makes clear that this is a woman who doesn't flinch at the thought or action of death.

This isn't La Femme Nikita or the latest Schwarzenegger vehicle. There's nothing slick or casual about the violence. The Terrorist, an Indian import, is more about ideas than action and more about living than dying. It is sometimes unsteady from a technical standpoint, its production values shaky and its visual effects almost non-existent. But it goes places inside its heroine's heart and mind that few films ever explore.

Terrorists in most movies are non-descript villains, usually unshaven and interchangeable men of Arabic or Asian extraction. Their motives, when they're explained at all, tend to be either simple-minded religious fanaticism or outright greed. They're the perfect bad guys for the post-ideological era, because (unlike the Russians in Cold War thrillers, who at least had world subjugation on their minds) they don't stand for anything in particular. They want to blow things up and kill people.

But in the real world, even murderers—especially murderers—need reasons for their actions. If we don't understand why an Egyptian religious sect would try to dynamite the World Trade Center, it's probably because we don't know very much about our own place in the world and the effects we have on it. That's why my favorite scene from any movie last year was the excruciating torture sequence in Three Kings, in which the Iraqi interrogator simmers with rage as he tells his American prisoner about the bomb that fell on his home in Baghdad.

Nothing in The Terrorist hits quite that hard, but that's partly because this movie divorces itself entirely from politics to focus on the purely personal question of what makes life worth living—and worth taking. Malli is a rebel fighter for a group whose grievances are never clearly identified and whose aims are likewise murky. They're waging guerrilla war in the rainforests of southern India. It's obvious the government troops are brutal and repressive, but the rebels are capable of cold butchery themselves. Malli has earned the respect of her superiors for her dauntless bravery in battle and her willingness to kill. As a reward, they offer her their highest honor: martyrdom. She is to travel to a big city, strap on a belt of plastic explosives, walk up to an unidentified "VIP," and blow herself and him to pieces. She accepts the job.

In flashbacks, the film offers iconic reasons for her dedication. Her father was a "revolutionary poet;" her brother committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the government; and her lover died after one of his rebel comrades betrayed the group. The specifics of the rebel cause aren't important; for Malli, fighting is the only thing that makes sense, the only way she's ever seen to make a mark on the world. (That point is nicely illustrated when, after rehearsing for the assassination, she presses an ink-smudged thumb onto a small map of the globe and whispers, "Boom.")

But when she goes to stay with an old farmer, Vasu, while awaiting her designated day, Malli discovers there may be as many reasons to live as there are to die. And she has to make a choice.

You're not sure until the end what the choice will be. And the most remarkable thing about The Terrorist is that even after the fact, you're not positive she did the right thing. Because the film is neutral about the things she's fighting for, it doesn't offer an easy compass by which to judge her actions. You're left, as she is, with only what's inside her. One of the film's nicest touches is the relationship between Malli and Vasu's wife, a woman who has been in a catatonic coma ever since her own son was killed seven years earlier. The wife's paralysis in the face of death is the opposite of Malli's own decisiveness, but soon Malli begins to wonder if what looks to her like weakness is an expression of something deeper. The film never quite resolves that, and its open-endedness is both provocative and (maybe deliberately) unsatisfying.

Directed by Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan, The Terrorist is oddly lovely to look at, full of forest green and penetrating close-ups. It also leans heavily on slow-motion short-focus scenes and repeated water imagery, which gets kind of heavy-handed (as does the sometimes irritating melodramatic score). But actress Ayesha Dharkar, who plays Malli, gives a careful, naturalistic performance that keeps the film grounded. Whether she's killing, eating, or just staring out her window, she has a focus that draws you into her wide, confident eyes. This is her movie. (The film's Indian title was simply Malli.)

The Terrorist does not dismiss the claims of the rebel leaders that Malli's martyrdom is necessary for some greater good. But it does explore what experiences and loyalties someone must have to make that sacrifice. And in asking those questions, it gets close to something that feels like truth.

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