Foreigners exposed to films from India probably know of two kinds: the heavily plotted fairy tales that portray traditional myths or restrictive, contemporary social roles, and the coolly introspective, often politically scornful films of Satyajit Ray. In a sense, Santosh Sivan's debut feature The Terrorist combines elements of both types of movie. Like the outlandish, make-believe fantasies that historically dominate the Indian cinema, The Terrorist evokes a state that is intangible and removed from reality, though Sivan's purpose is surreal instead of religious. Like Ray, Sivan looks at what it means to be politically engaged.
Sumptuously photographed, reportedly without artificial lighting, and impudently subjective, holing up deep inside the point of view of a divided young woman, The Terrorist offers a feast for the eyes, and a jagged, dreamy puzzle for the mind. Even with its dazzling construction, however, the film stumbles from sidestepping moral specifics. Sivan insists on depicting the world as a dream, yet he neglects to give substance to his heroine's dilemma. We're never allowed a glimpse of what, exactly, pulls both sides of her conscience.
Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) is a terrorist for a nationalist guerrilla unit, which trains and operates deep in the jungle. The leader of the group pronounces that a politician must be assassinated, to further the cause. A suicide mission, moreover, will show the world the movement's seriousness. A woman will carry out the assignment, when the elected official receives female well-wishers at a rally. Numerous women compete for the task, each convinced she will die a beloved martyr, but Malli's coolheadedness wins her the spot. An underground network transports her out of the forest to the city. But once there, living under an assumed identity in the tranquil home of a carefree old man who does not know her true purpose, she begins to have doubts about what her true calling is.
The Terrorist often blurs Malli's past and present. To his credit, Sivan does not merely tangle up time at the beginning of the film, to impress audiences with his editing chops, and hypocritically straighten it out later, to relieve growing perplexity. His narrative is consistently enterprising, leaping across large stretches of time to connect Malli's restless emotions.
The film frequently flashes back to Malli's care for a comrade who fell in battle, a man she fell in love with. Her feelings about him contribute to her anxiety over the prospect of dying for some greater good. However, for her uncertainty to register, we need to know some facts about why Malli ever found the guerrillas appealing. Yet their purpose never surfaces. General pronouncements by the leader about 'justice' don't help us at all, and Sivan is open to the charge of suppressing genuine political discourse. Without finding out about the renegades' motivations, Malli's inner argument becomes empty. Keeping the leader off-screen, but literally loud on the soundtrack, is a heavy-handed tactic that lends the group's mission a sinister quality, and insures Malli will make a very predictable decision.