THE annual Sundance Film Festival showcases the best of independent American cinema. In doing so, it celebrates the individualism that lies at the core of the work of filmmakers who dare to be different. That's what Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist - the first-ever Indian film to be invited to the event that Robert Redford's Sundance Institute hosts in Salt Lake City, Utah - is: different. In content and in style.
Awash with natures hues - soothing green, sparkling blue, brooding grey - the Tamil film narrates its tale largely through tight, translucent close-ups held together by long stretches of resonant silence. Sivan's not afraid to cut out his characteristic visual flamboyance and let his wonderfully lensed but deliberately low-key images do all the talking. Although as the 95-minute film nears it climax, it tends to lose the marvellous subtlety of the first half and get trapped in a repetitive pattern, the relentless intensity of its drama leaves a deep imprint.
The Terrorist is a sensitive exploration of the mind of a teenaged female suicide bomber shot with all the skills that come naturally to the master cinematographer in Sivan. It's about violence, but certainly not about guts and gore. Its about a terrorist preparing herself for a mission that'll bestow martyrdom on her, but its not about dramatic, action-packed exchanges. Yet, under its quiet, languid, even poetic surface, the narrative crackles with a level of energy rare in non-mainstream Indian cinema. Not the least because of the utterly impressive manner in which Ayesha Dharker, essaying the role of the ticking human bomb for whom the only certainty in life is death, communicates through her expressive eyes.
Dharker is Malli, a 19-year-old terrorist fighting for an unspecified cause. She's filled with pride when she's chosen ahead of several other contenders for a suicide mission to eliminate a political leader. Her brother had laid down his life for the cause, and she won't let down his memory. Malli is a programmed automaton: all that matters to her is the liberation of her people. But can a human being be so devoid of emotion? An unexpected dilemma confronts Malli as feelings embedded deep down burst through the hard exterior. It's an 'interior' film, says Sivan, known for the grand visuals of Roja and Kala Pani. So it's shot mainly with just two lights.
Despite the pared-down cinematography and the minimalistic, no-frills narrative style, The Terrorist is a visually powerful film. The moods of nature constitute the backdrop against which Malli's gripping inner conflict plays out. Its rhythm is punctuated by startling images of gushing waterfalls, of gently rolling streams, of an iridescent dewdrop on a leaf, of raindrops, of a single tear rolling out of Mallis eye - images that convey the unfathomable mystery that swirls around the central character like the fresh white spray of a thunderous cataract. Keeping the cameras gaze fixed on Malli's inscrutable face through long passages of the film, Sivan captures the sheer inevitability, the hopeless claustrophobia of her life.
The Terrorist is a sad film, yet it's edge-of-the-seat fare. It's screening in the Indian Panorama section of the 30th IFFI last week clashed with the official ceremony at which a lifetime achievement award was conferred on Bertolucci. Yet, every seat in the cavernous Sapna theatre was taken. This when most other Panorama films were screened to almost empty halls. Said Tokyo-based Austrian artist-turned-filmmaker Edgar Honetschlager: I loved the film. It's the best I saw at IFFI. At the Cairo Film Festival late last year, jury chairman John Malkovich was so impressed that The Terrorist walked away with three top prizes - best film, best director and best actress.
It would be surprising if audiences back home don't agree with Malkovich and Honetschlager. The Terrorist, bought in Sivan's home state, Kerala, by megastar Mohanlal, has been picked up by UTV Motion Pictures and Shringar Films for all-India distribution. We're dubbing the film in both Hindi and English, says Sanjiv Bhattacharji, vice-president, UTV Motion Pictures. It has tremendous potential. For the moment, Sivan is banking on Sundance. It's a place where films get picked up by the US market, he says. If The Terrorist does, Sivan's place in the sun will be perfectly deserved.