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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 31, 2000. All rights



At the Movies: The Terrorist

While the aftermath of terrorist action is everywhere

about us, from New York and Oklahoma City to Beirut, Paris, and Tokyo,

few weary bystanders ever glimpse the place where such activity is

conceptualized, planned, and executed. Who are the individuals who

trade in carnage? And what motivates their conduct?

This summer’s New Jersey International Film Festival, which opens

at Rutgers on Friday, June 2, is laced with such dark themes. The

eight-week festival, which runs through July 29, features area


of 20 new international films, American independents, experimental

and short subjects, and classic revivals. Jewish history, a topic

that inevitably leads to the Holocaust, as well as death and dying,

are the festival’s major themes (

Among these dark offerings is the remarkable independent feature by

Indian director Santosh Sivan, simply titled "The Terrorist,"

scheduled for June 16 and 17. It shares a double bill with "Mr.

Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.," Errol Morris’s

controversial new documentary about man who has been hired to


the Holocaust.

"On the surface it may seem like a lot of doom and gloom,"

says curator Al Nigrin, "but ultimately the doom is overshadowed

by human life. I don’t think it was done consciously, but this is

what is out there. And when I noticed it, I made some additions to

embellish the program, such as `The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

and Orson Welles’s `F is for Fake.’ But it’s a humanist series. Taking

death as a central theme, you look at death, and yet it brings you

back to life again."

"The Terrorist" is the first feature by the highly regarded

Indian cinematographer, who wrote, directed, and acted as


for this "no budget" film. Filmed in 16 days on location in

Madras and Kerala, all the actors, with the exception of lead actress

Ayesha Dharkar, are non-professionals. It has been championed by actor

John Malkovich, a member of the jury at the 1998 Cairo Film Festival,

where it won prizes as best film, best director, and artistic


for Ayesha Dharkar.

Sivan, who has more than 40 features and musicals under his belt,

shoots with Mani Rathnam, director of the acclaimed film, "The

Duo." The film’s American producer, Mark Burton, is a veteran

of "Bollywood," the enormous Bombay-based film industry that

churns out India’s wildly popular melodramas and musicals that also

provide Sivan’s bread and butter.

"The Terrorist" is the story of Malli, a stunningly beautiful

and earnest 19-year-old who has spent most of her life in


training. A zealous and effective killer — we watch her kill twice

in the film’s opening moments — Malli interviews for and wins

the coveted job of suicide bomber.

Sivan says his project was prompted by the 1991 assassination of


Indian premier Rajiv Ghandi, murdered on the campaign trail by a Tamil

suicide-bomber wearing a sari. Her purpose, she believed, was an


homeland for a minority group of northern Sri Lanka. But did her act

of self-sacrifice accomplish any tangible political purpose? The


of course, will never know.

Sivan cannily sets his drama of terror nowhere — and everywhere.

We’re in a wet, war-torn jungle nation that could be Sri Lanka, and

where the actors speak the Tamil dialect. Yet this group of war-ready

terrorists act at the behest of "The Leader," preparing to

assassinate "the VIP," fighting and killing for the liberation

of "Our People." We recognize Northern Ireland, Beirut,


Idaho, Sierra Leone, Tokyo, the West Bank, the Philippines —


possibilities are tragically endless.

The film focuses on Malli’s final preparations for the mission that

will end her life. Yet the path that leads Malli out of her terrorist

cell to the town where the assassination is to be carried out gives

her time and space to contemplate her own emotions, perhaps for the

first time. And her previously secure, singleminded goal is gradually

beset by contradiction.

The result is a quiet, brooding film that is as beautiful as it is

brutal. Set in this forest nation of rivers and waterfalls, filmed

with the radiance of natural light, colors are luminous and crisp,

water sparkles like diamonds. Yet in this harrowing environment,


by government commandos and peopled by child-soldiers, the lush green

foliage may be spattered at any moment with human flesh. Recurrent

images of water, rain, river, and even tears, seem always to hold

the promise of washing the landscape clean.

Working in tight close up, Dharkar’s extraordinary face, framed by

thick, blue-black hair, dominates almost every frame. And her enormous

dark eyes and wide, full mouth tell the story.

Yet while Malli speaks volumes with her eyes, her verbal communication

is restricted, for the most part, to small grunts of acquiescence.

That she can speak eloquently is never in question, but her


almost bestial means of navigating her world of terror is astounding

in concept and execution. Trapped within her own conflicted psyche,

often the only sound we hear is Malli’s breath.

As the movie draws toward its climax, the viewer, too, is beset by

conflicting emotions about whether she will or will not summon the

will to press the detonator button to set off the explosives strapped

around her waist.

Recruited by the leader to serve as "a thinking bomb," Malli’s

dilemma is, in fact, her journey from unthinking automaton to thinking

human. Her zeal unravels slowly, almost imperceptibly, as she meets

a series of ordinary people, each beset by their individual tales

of trial and torment. Her unexpected relationship with her silly,

garrulous old farmer host, Vasu, is at the core of her transformation.

Speaking about the young terrorists of his own part of the world,

Sivan says, "All of them are made to believe that being a martyr

is the biggest thing to happen, and they’re given fantastic funerals.

It is like the ultimate high for a person in that kind of


Malkovich, in an essay published in the New York Times in January,

describes Sivan’s film as "a small masterpiece of economy, grace

and precision." "Of course it won’t make a fortune," he

writes, "but in the America I grew up in, art wasn’t merely an

investment opportunity; no family newspaper would have been vulgar

enough to print the weekly film grosses, and I think I’m correct in

remembering that profit was only one of the pleasant by-products of


"A filmmaker cannot change anything, we can just draw attention

to something," says Sivan. And here he succeeds on all counts.

The larger picture for the filmmaker and citizen of India? "It’s

like someone raking up all the leaves and collecting them together,

and the wind comes along and blows them all away. And again he does

it, and again the wind comes and blows them away."

— Nicole Plett

New Jersey International Film Festival is presented by

the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, New Brunswick.

Screenings are Fridays through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College

Avenue Campus (near the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street).

Thursday screenings are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College

Campus (near the corner of Nichol Avenue and George Street). All


begin at 7 p.m.; $5 non-members. Information 732-932-8482; Website:

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the 1999 documentary

by Aviva Kempner about the Jewish slugger from the Bronx who became

a star in the 1930s and ’40s. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 2,

3, and 4. F For Fake , a rarely seen Orson Welles feature of

1976 about the famous forger, Elmyr de Hory. Thursday, June 8.

Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. 1999;

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 9, 10, and 11. Orpheus , Jean

Cocteau’s 1949 classic; Thursday, June 15.

The Terrorist. On a double bill with Mr. Death: Rise

and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. . $8; Friday and Saturday, June

16 and 17.

Top Of Page
Mainstream Movies

Confirm titles with theaters.

Battlefield Earth. John Travolta plays a conqueror from

outer space. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Mercer, Regal.

The Big Kahuna. Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito star.


Bossa Nova. Marketfair.

Center Stage. Professionals from New York’s American


Theater portray aspiring dancers competing for a spot in a ballet

academy. AMC, Destinta, Mercer, Montgomery, Loews, Regal.

Dinosaur. The larger-than-life animation from the Disney

studios. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Marketfair, Montgomery,


Erin Brockovich. Julia Roberts plays a real-life crusader

bent on revealing both her cleavage and the polluting sins of a


power company. AMC.

Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. Stars human versions of

stone-age cartoon characters. AMC, Loews, MarketFair,


Frequency. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel star in this

fantasy. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.

Gladiator. Russell Crowe stars in this Roman epic


AMC, Destinta, Loews, Mercer, Montgomery, Regal.

High Fidelity. John Cusack plays the owner of a retro

record store whose business is failing, and whose life stinks.


I Dreamed of Africa. Kim Basinger in the life story of

Kuki Gallmann, an Italian woman who starts a new life in Kenya.


Keeping the Faith. Edward Norton directs and stars with

Ben Stiller and Jen Elfman. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.

Love and Basketball. A Spike Lee story with Omar Epps

and Sanaa Lathan. AMC.

Mission Impossible 2. The sequel. AMC, Destinta,


Loews, Montgomery, Regal.

Road Trip. An `Animal House’ inspired film. AMC,


Loews, MarketFair, Regal.

Rules of Engagement. Samuel L. Jackson plays a war hero

on trial for war crimes and finds an advocate in Tommy Lee Jones.


Screwed. Norm MacDonald and Danny DeVito. AMC.

Shanghai Noon. Comic Western stars Jackie Chan, Owen


and Lucy Liu. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Marketfair, Regal.

Small Time Crooks. Woody Allen as a bank robber who wants

to retire with his wife (Tracy Ullman). AMC, Garden, Loews,


Montgomery, Regal.

Time Code 2000. Marketfair.

Up at the Villa. Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn star

in a thrilling, sexy romance. Marketfair,


U-571. Harvey Keitel and Matthew McConaughey star in this

U.S. Navy suspense film. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.

Virgin Suicides. Sofia Coppola’s debut about five sisters

battling adolescence. AMC.

Where the Heart Is. Ashley Judd and Natalie Portman.


Top Of Page

AMC Hamilton 24 Theaters, 325 Sloan Avenue, I-295 Exit

65A, 609-890-8307. 24-screen, stadium-seating. $7; $5 matinees; $5


Destinta, Independence Plaza, 2465 South Broad Street,

Hamilton, 609-888-4500. Stadium-seating 12-screen. $6.75 adults; $5


Garden Theater, 160 Nassau, 609-683-7595. $6.50; $4


Loews Theaters, Route 1, New Brunswick, 732-846-9200.

Stadium-seating. $8.50; $5.25 matinees.

MarketFair-UA, Route 1 South, 609-520-8700. $7.50

adults; $4.75 matinees.

Mercer Mall, Route 1, 609-452-2868. $7.25; $4.75


Montgomery Center Theater, Routes 206 and 518,

609-924-7444. $7 adults; $4.25 matinees.

Regal Town Center Plaza, 319 Route 130 North, East


609-371-8473. Stadium-seating, 15 screens. $8; $5 matinees.

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