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Waiting Her Time: Chosen to commit a political murder, Ayesha Dharkar bides her time in the countryside.

Hit Woman

Ayesha Dharkar commands the screen as a fervent assassin in Santosh Sivan's 'The Terrorist'

IN ATTENDANCE at the Cairo Film Festival, actor John Malkovich viewed an Indian film titled The Terrorist, and he's used his influence to help bring it to U.S. distribution. It's easy to understand what Malkovich saw in director Santosh Sivan's outstanding film, which is a lush, intimate, yet fiercely tense exploration of a girl's crisis. The Terrorist is based very loosely on the story of the kamikaze terrorist Dhanu, who detonated a bomb that killed MP Rajiv Gandhi and 16 bystanders on May 21, 1991. It's believed that the plot to kill Gandhi, who was then the shoo-in for prime minister of India, was carried out by the Sri Lankan separatists known as the Tamil Tigers. Sivan, however, keeps the story vague--The Terrorist doesn't get caught in the political turmoil behind the Gandhi assassination. Here, the suicide mission of a young female terrorist is treated as universal and immediate; it could take place anywhere in the killing grounds, among the hundred little wars currently plaguing the Earth.

Nineteen-year-old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) is a fervent guerrilla chosen for the honor of assassinating a political figure known only as "The VIP." In the days before the killing is scheduled, Malli stays with a farmer named Vasu (Parmeshwaran). Vasu, who isn't in on the plot, at first seems like the hidebound, pompous figure of male authority Malli and her comrades hope to wipe away. However, Vasu, an incisive, compassionate man, understands something about Malli of which the girl herself is ignorant.

Sivan is working in the mode of Taxi Driver, putting the viewer under the skin of the dubiously sane main character. The bewitching Dharkar has the kind of clarity of purpose you see in the face of Frida Kahlo. When her simple mission becomes complicated by her doubts, the movie goes soft. Visan, I'm afraid, dubs in a synthesizer theme that's like a stylized baby cry--as if the possibility of living to be a mother someday is all a magnificent woman like Malli could live for! Even so, there's enough that's good in The Terrorist to recommend it as one of the best films of the year. Sivan presents the jungly countryside as a doomed person would see it: sensually, gleaming with bright beads of water on the fronds matching the sweat and blood on Malli's brow. And Dharkar's moments alone are hypnotic. Her interest in her thumbprint on a wall or a stray hair that escaped in the shower makes complete sense. Here's a woman soon to be blown to atoms; as she yet lives, these small traces of herself have her full attention.

There's another brilliantly chilling scene. Vasu, at dinner, tells a parable of two seeds: the optimistic seed that surrendered to its destiny to flourish and grow, and the pessimistic seed that hid from the earth and was eaten by a hen. Vasu is smug, imparting some country wisdom to his young female lodger; Malli, listening but thinking of achieving her own secret destiny, smiles. It's as if she were pregnant with a murder.


The Terrorist (Unrated; 95 min.), directed and photographed by Santosh Sivan, written by Sivan, Ravi Deshpande and Vijay Deveshwar and starring Ayesha Dharkar and Vishwas, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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