Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 254 under his belt and 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  Our second film in the series, The Terrorist, explores terrorism through the eyes of a suicide bomber.

It is not every day that we see the world of terror from this perspective, and The Terrorist is refreshing in this respect, preceding 9/11, and definitely preceding any claims of Katniss Everdeen being the first female facing a non-sexualized cinematic fight to the death.


The Players:

  • Director: Santosh Sivan
  • Writer: Santosh Sivan
  • Cast: Malli (Ayesha Dharkar), Thyagu (Vishnu Vardhan), Permua (Bhanu Prakash)

The Plot:

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!]

A suicide bombing is being planned and the search for a person who can pull it off begins.  Malli is the girl selected to “fight for her people”.  Selecting Malli seems especially appropriate upon the realization that her brother had previously achieved an honored death.  To prepare for her mission, Malli is sent to a remote location where she is trained, concealing her purpose from the people with whom she stays.   As the training comes to an end and conflicting discoveries are made, suspense builds and Malli must soon face her mission.

The Good:

  • Human Value –Similar to the movie’s hard look at the motivations guiding the actions of a terrorist, Malli’s eyes are cold and determined, and yet there is always a hint of life in them.   Malli’s value for human life is tested, allowing her to think things through to the very end.  After all, this is a human being and not a T1000 being programmed to kill. Her descent into cold murder is convincing, blended with moments of subtle doubt, although the script doesn’t allow her to go further down this path.
  • Imagery and Composition: I was not surprised to learn that Sivan is the most “awarded” cinematographer in India.  You can tell the budget was limited.  You don’t get the wide shots you’d get in a blockbuster, but there are several beautifully composed shots that stick with you.
  • Violence, as a theme: There are films that romanticize war, adding beautiful music and lush scenery, treating the real consequences of violence almost as an afterthought.  As director Sivan notes, “Most of the films that deal with violence end up showing a great deal of it and then say, at the end, ‘No, it’s not right.’”  The Terrorist takes its own path, avoiding references to any specific political group, war or country.   Many films dealing with the same subject matter would conveniently exploit the use of gratuitous violence to make a point.  Here, we are clearly more focused on how all these events affect one person’s view on life.  A life is first, and any thought given to violence feels secondary as a result.
  • Historical Significance in Film History: Filmed before 9-11, this film is ahead of its time and definitely feels relevant still today.  The film is inspired by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s 6th Prime Minister and the grandson of India’s 1st Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi had entered office after his mother’s assassination in 1984.  (Despite the same surname, there is no relation to Mahatma Gandhi.)

The Bad:

  • The Second Act – Things get interesting when Malli begins having doubts, but the second act drags a bit.  Malli makes a discovery about herself that carries interesting implications for her mission, but it doesn’t get explored enough.  There are also some light moments and introspection, mostly involving a good natured man providing her with shelter, but the overall momentum of the film loses some steam.  A more accessible relationship between them would have brought her doubts more to the surface.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:  As you state in your review, the idea “that a human imagination could be so limited that it sees its own extinction as a victory”, is indeed a sad realization.  The film’s decision to leave out all ideology allows it to speak to terrorism in the purest sense.  Your review mentions a suggestion that Malli’s close-ups are meant to function “as if we might be able to find our way into Malli’s mind through her pores”.  The film was made for $50,000, and I suspect this is just as responsible for the constant use of close-ups.  I don’t agree that this film is a great film, mainly because it doesn’t hold well enough in the second act.  However, the fact that a film of this quality was made with such a low budget is definitely something that I would considered great, though not the film altogether.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you consider The Terrorist to be Good, Bad, or Great?

Next week’s review: A Woman Under the Influence