The Terrorist (India 1999)

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

Ayesha Dharker as Malli in one of several scenes by water.

(These notes were written for a student event addressing the concept of ‘Shocking Cinema’, part of the A Level Film Studies syllabus in the UK. The Terrorist is an example of ’emotional violence’ – physical violence is mostly off-screen, so the film was rated as ’12’ in the UK.)

This is a Tamil language film, although its director is from the neighbouring state of Kerala where Malayalam is spoken – the two languages are similar.

Plot outline

Malli is a young woman in a guerrilla army. After her lover is killed, she is chosen to be a suicide bomber. The narrative follows her preparation for the assassination of a politician. During this period, she discovers that she is pregnant. Will she go through with the mission?

Institutional background

The Terrorist was seen mainly in smaller arthouse cinemas in selected Indian cities – it was not released widely like a Hindi language ‘Bollywood movie’. Although Bollywood movies have the biggest budgets and are enjoyed by Hindi speakers (about 40% of the population) in all parts of India, in South India films in other regional languages are more widely seen. Chennai (Madras) actually produces more films than Mumbai (Bombay). The Terrorist properly belongs to what has sometimes been called the Parallel Cinema or New Cinema in India. The director, Santosh Sivan, is from Kerala, the South Western state with the highest level of education and political sophistication. He was trained at the main Indian film school in Pune and has a wide knowledge of global cinema. He has acted as cinematographer on films in both Hindi and Tamil Cinema (notably for director Mani Ratnam) and after The Terrorist directed the big budget spectacular Asoka – the story of a legendary Indian king, starring Sharukh Khan, one of the biggest Bollywood stars. In 2003 he photographed the ‘British Indian’ film Bride and Prejudice.

Sivan is a cinematographer who directs, rather than a director who photographs and The Terrorist is a low budget film in which the quality of the images becomes a central feature. Sivan exploits the lush landscapes of South India and the beauty of his leading actor. There are many close-ups and shots of water and other natural features – in stark contrast to the violence of the armed struggle.

The Terrorist was seen at the Cairo Film Festival by the Hollywood actor John Malkovich, who wrote enthusiastically about the film and helped its release in the West. Made for only $50,000, one small New York cinema took $3,000 a day in its opening run. (see

Civil war in Sri Lanka

The film does not explain the ‘real world’ background to the specific political struggles being explored. The assumption is that it refers to the Civil War in Sri Lanka and its effects in India. Sri Lanka has a majority population of Sinhalese Buddhists (about 14 million), but in the North Eastern corner of the island, the majority population is Tamil and Hindu (about 4 million). This Tamil minority is linked directly to the people of Tamil Nadhu, the Indian state in South Eastern India with a population of 62 million. Since the 1980s Tamil separatists have been fighting against the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The struggle also has major implications in India as Tamil Nadhu is one of the most important Indian states. (Look on a map to see how close Sri Lanka is to Tamil Nadhu.)

Extracts from an interview with writer/director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan on
“The idea came when I was talking to a friend of mine, Joe Samuel, who on the day of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination could not travel. That day we spent a lot of time talking about the assassination and were wondering what could have made her do it. This stayed with me for quite some time. So finally when I wanted to make a film I decided that since in our country women are considered very creative people here you have a person who is very destructive.

Maybe if you put a woman in a natural environment where she is very much associated with nature, it rains, there’s violence and very real things and maybe she starts feeling differently! Maybe it affects her. I liked the whole idea of how these thoughts run through someone’s head. So we did a lot of screen tests. We finally discovered Ayesha Dharker who I thought was simply beautiful because she didn’t need not to talk to express her feelings which was I think what I like about her.”

On the reaction of Western audiences to The Terrorist
It is about a subject which is very much in the news. It has a universal appeal to it. The whole idea that here is a film about a terrorist without much of violence in it and not much bloodshed made it a very different film. Even though it is not a very ‘audience friendly’ film, it still has evoked interest in an educated audience, which supports the film.”

The background to the Rajiv Ghandi assassination
Assassinations have had a devastating effect on Indian political life since Independence in 1947. The ‘father figure’ of peaceful resistance to the British, Mahatma Ghandi, was killed in 1948 by a Hindu fundamentalist unwilling to accept Ghandi’s belief in the equality of Muslims in India. Indira Ghandi (no relation, but the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawarhal Nehru), Prime Minister of India for all but three years from 1966, was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984, following repression of Sikh militants. She was succeeded as Prime Minister by her son Rajiv as leader of the Congress Party, which then lost the 1989 election. Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated by Tamil separatists in 1991.

The following extract from is © Asia Times, by K T Rajasingham

When he was about five metres from the stage, he received silk scarves from four persons – one being Latha Kannan, a lady Congress worker, whose daughter Kokila recited a Hindi song in his favor. Suddenly a young bespectacled women, about 25 years old with a sandalwood garland in her hand, popped up in the line to greet Rajiv Gandhi. Some eyewitness had seen this women moving towards Rajiv Gandhi and bending down, genuflecting to pay respects, by touching his feet.

At that very moment, at 10.18, a shuddering loud explosion was heard. Though there was a heavy concentration of policemen and Congress workers around Rajiv Gandhi, immediately after the loud explosion, he was thrown about 1.75 meters to the left, inside the barricade. According to some eyewitness reports, the explosion produced a flash of light about 3 meters high, which lasted for a few seconds, followed by a thick pall of smoke. The blast created a forceful impact, throwing people about, and in all, along with Rajiv Gandhi, 18 persons were killed, including nine policemen, and 33 persons, including 12, policemen were injured.

“The intelligence Bureau later briefed the informal meeting of the CCPA [Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs] about the technology of the assassination based on the inspection of the scene of the blast, discussions with the eye witnesses and experts (including doctors and forensic science experts) study of the photographs, examination material objects recovered from the scene etc. It revealed that: (i) The IED [Improvised Explosive Device] was carried on the body of an unidentified woman wearing a green salwar and mustard colored kameez (ii) It was a highly sophisticated and powerful device which had a foolproof triggering mechanism, electric detonator and a well concealed body jacket to house the IED; (iii) Plastic explosive of the RDX variety was used; (iv) Cause of death of Rajiv Gandhi and the woman later identified as Dhanu, who was carrying the IED, was a direct impact from the blast; (v) Small steel balls (or pellets) were used to create an intense impact; (vi) The assassin appeared to have intimate knowledge of the function, its sequence etc; (vii) Highest impact of the blast was borne by the unidentified woman followed by Rajiv Gandhi. It indicates that the epicenter of the blast was closest to the assassin followed by Rajiv Gandhi.”– The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: Unanswered Questions and Unasked Queries, Dr Subramanian Swamy, pages 114-115.

Discussion questions for The Terrorist

1. Does Malli press the button at the end of the film? If she doesn’t, what do you think stops her?

2. Could The Terrorist be described as a film which utilises Hitchcock’s ideas about ‘pure cinema’? In what ways does it make use of elements of ‘film language’?

3. Did you identify with Malli? Which techniques are most effective in allowing us to have some idea about how this remarkable young woman might feel?

4. What do you think is the moral position of the film? Does it ask us to identify with a murderer?

5. Is the film shocking?


  1. venicelion

    Yes, I saw your post on Tahaan and it looks very interesting. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to appear in the UK unless it is picked up via a festival showing. How widely was it released in India and what language was it filmed in? If it is in Hindi, there is an outside chance a Bollywood distributor will put it out on DVD in the UK.

    ‘Pure cinema’ is a concept related to using all of the potential of film as a medium to convey the story. Lighting, editing, sound, costume etc. should all help tell the story rather than have characters use dialogue to explain something. Another way of looking at this is to argue that ‘pure cinema’ is achieved when the film is purely cinematic and doesn’t need to refer to other art forms. There are loads of separate discussions about this on the web. Just Google ‘Hitchcock pure cinema’. It may well have been Truffaut who coined the phrase, but see what you find out.


  2. venicelion

    Thanks for this. I’ve now spotted that Tahaan is showing at the London Film Festival. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will get a UK release, but it will help.


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