Australians see so few Indian films in their arthouses these days that Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist benefits from a surprise factor which is larger than its intrinsic quality.
A low-budget independent feature, it is notable for focusing both on female experience and a usually obscured topic – terrorism.
Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) is a fierce member of a terrorist cell, devoted to training in a jungle hideaway. She is ecstatic when selected for the suicidal mission of blowing up a public figure during a forthcoming street parade.
Blessed by her awesome leader (whose face remains unseen) and sent on her way, Malli passes the preparatory time with good-hearted people who know nothing of her political task. And – in a somewhat unwieldy and corny plot structure – she remembers vivid incidents from her past, such as her father's funeral and a brief romantic idyll with a revolutionary comrade.
Do not go expecting a political docu-drama. Sivan's overwrought film has the feel of early Samuel Fuller: the social context is an abstract blur and most of the action is in tight close-up, drenched in rain and set to a histrionic score.
The small-scale shocks come so frequently and repetitively that tension sometimes unintentionally trips over into hilarity (particularly in the many scenes of Malli rehearsing her assignment).
Although The Terrorist makes a show of taking us into a covert world and an ideological mindset that differ greatly from conventional social values, it quickly reveals itself to be pedalling a predictably humanist analysis of extremist politics and female destiny. At least Sivan delivers his preachy message with melodramatic conviction.
Whatever its flaws, there is no doubting the high curiosity value of this movie, which is best appreciated as a contemporary B film – of the kind they just don't make anymore.
MORE Sivan: Asoka
© Adrian Martin January 2001