Corrections or additions?
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 (www.rci.rutgers.edu/~nigrin).
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
"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
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:
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.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 9, 10, and 11. Orpheus , Jean
Cocteau’s 1949 classic; Thursday, June 15.
and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. . $8; Friday and Saturday, June
16 and 17.
Confirm titles with theaters.
outer space. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Mercer, Regal.
Theater portray aspiring dancers competing for a spot in a ballet
academy. AMC, Destinta, Mercer, Montgomery, Loews, Regal.
studios. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Marketfair, Montgomery,
bent on revealing both her cleavage and the polluting sins of a
power company. AMC.
stone-age cartoon characters. AMC, Loews, MarketFair,
fantasy. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.
AMC, Destinta, Loews, Mercer, Montgomery, Regal.
record store whose business is failing, and whose life stinks.
Kuki Gallmann, an Italian woman who starts a new life in Kenya.
Ben Stiller and Jen Elfman. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.
and Sanaa Lathan. AMC.
Loews, Montgomery, Regal.
Loews, MarketFair, Regal.
on trial for war crimes and finds an advocate in Tommy Lee Jones.
and Lucy Liu. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Marketfair, Regal.
to retire with his wife (Tracy Ullman). AMC, Garden, Loews,
in a thrilling, sexy romance. Marketfair,
U.S. Navy suspense film. AMC, Loews, Mercer, Regal.
battling adolescence. AMC.
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.