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Weekly Classics: The Terrorist

Published Sep 14, 2012 09:41am


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When you first hear the name Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, it doesn’t seem to hold much significance – it’s a name that doesn’t really make you pause and think for a moment. However, on 21 May 1991, Rajaratnam alias ‘Dhanu’ or ‘Gayatri’ carried out an assassination that was both spectacular and horrific at the same time, and it shocked the world. Her target was the former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi and the brutal manner in which he was murdered had never happened before to a major head of state.

Rajiv Gandhi had been campaigning for the upcoming Indian parliamentary elections in Sriperumbudur, which is located in the state of Tamil Nadu. Due to the involvement of Indian peace keeping forces in the Sri Lankan Civil War and his vow to disarm the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, if he ever came back into power, Rajiv Gandhi was a top target for the militant group. Despite repeated warnings about the threat to his life, he continued campaigning in the state.

On 21 May he got out of his car in Sriperumbudur and made his way to the podium to give a speech. Along the way he was greeted by supporters, well wishers and the general public. Among the crowd, carrying a garland was the girl, Dhanu. As she got close to him, she put the garland around his neck and bent down to touch his feet as a mark of respect. As she bent down, the explosive vest that she had wrapped around her body was triggered and blew up, killing her along with the former prime minister and several other people. The only thing left of the assassin was her severed head, an almost grim memento left behind of the atrocity that had taken place.

This was one of the first wake up calls the world had received about the menace of suicide bombers, a problem that would plague people around the world in the years to come. It wasn’t the first suicide attack to take place, nor would it be the last, but for the people of the subcontinent it was something they had never seen before on such a public stage and to such a high profile person.

Before they were decimated in 2009, by the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers were amongst the most fierce and lethal of all guerrilla movements in the world. Dedicated to their cause with a fanatical zeal and brutal in the manner in which they dealt with people who crossed them, the Tamil Tigers were the first to pioneer the use of suicide bombers as a legitimate tool for fighting. Their infamous ‘Black Tigers’ was an elite suicide squad that carried out numerous attacks against military and civilian targets. It still holds the distinction for being the only militant outfit to successfully assassinate two heads of state, one being Rajiv Gandhi, and the other Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

But what actually causes someone to strap explosives around their body and blow themselves up? What would drive a human being to commit an act of immolation in such a shocking way? Any rational human being would be appalled at the suggestion that such a method be even tried. No one in their right state of mind would ever even think of doing something like this. These questions and queries were once asked by famed British journalist Robert Fisk when he interviewed Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Nasrallah’s group was the first to use suicide attacks in their fight against Israel, when the latter was still occupying Southern Lebanon in the 1980’s and 1990’s. When Fisk asked the Hezbollah chief the same questions, Nasrallah responded in the following quote;

“There are qualities which our fighters have. He who drives his truck into the enemy’s military base to blow himself up and to become a martyr, he drives in with a hopeful heart, smiling and happy because he knows he is going to another place. Death, according to our belief, is not oblivion. It is not the end. It is the beginning of a true life. The best metaphor for a Westerner to try to understand this truth is to think of a person being in a sauna bath for a long time. He is very thirsty and tired and hot and he is suffering from the effects of the high temperature. Then he is told that if he opens the door, he can go into a quiet, comfortable room, drink a nice cocktail and hear classical music. Then he will open the door and go through without hesitation, knowing that what awaits him is of much greater value. I cannot think of another example to explain this idea to a Westerner.”

Even this reasoning is difficult to fathom and does not completely give a visual explanation to the act of a suicide bombing.

When director Santosh Shivan made the movie ‘The Terrorist’ in 1998, he sought an explanation as well. His basic premise was not to justify the actions committed, but tried to get as close as possible into the mind of a suicide bomber and the events leading up to a suicide mission. Shivan used the backdrop of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination to tell his story and covey to the public an almost day-by-day fictional account of the killing. But he also adds another ingredient to the tale. He puts forward the question as to whether suicide bombers ever have any doubts or second thoughts about the mission being assigned to them.

In the film, a young girl named Malli (Ayesha Dharker), has been called upon by her superiors to carry out a suicide mission in which the intended target is a high level political figure. No name is ever given to us, or what that person has done to deserve being killed. It’s simply for the cause and for the livelihood of future generations that he has to die. Malli is only 19 years old, yet is already a veteran fighter who distinguishes herself from her other female compatriots in the numerous operations she has participated in. According to the flashbacks of her mysterious past, rebellion and sacrifice is in her blood, due to the fact that her brother was a legendary figure who also died for the cause.

Honored to be considered worthy of such a mission by the unseen leader of the group, she agrees to it without any hesitation. After making her way out of the guerrilla camp and into the intended target area, her colleagues put her up at a local residence, where under a carefully created façade, she prepares for the day the killing has to be carried out.

In the days leading up to the assassination date, Malli starts to have doubts about her assignment, possibly because this the first time she has lived around normal people who don’t carry guns and heavy explosives. Added to this is another twist, she is also pregnant and is expecting a child. While going through trial runs of placing the suicide belt around her body and a step-by-step practice of how the attack is to be carried out, she places her hand on her stomach continuously feeling her unborn child. Being pregnant and also being a suicide bomber adds to the dramatic effect and signifies the disturbing events unfolding on the screen. Malli is now at a crossroads and in quite an unenviable position. Will she back out and not complete the mission, or will she place the garland around the intended victim and blow herself up along with her unborn child?

Santosh Shivan had already highlighted himself as a world class cinematographer with movies such as ‘Dil Se’, ‘Fiza’ and later on in ‘Asoka’. However, ‘The Terrorist’ was his directorial debut, and quite an impressive one at that. His gifts as a magician with a movie camera are well on display over here. Considering the fact that the lead actress has dialogue that could practically be filled on one page, he had to use to use the expressions and haunting eyes of Ayesha Dharker to the maximum. She never really tells anyone what she’s going through or the doubts that she is having, only her eyes give the secret out. Conflicting emotions of fanaticism, yet questioning all that is around you are channeled through her eyes.

Ayesha Dharker gives a tour de force performance here and is perfect in the lead role. Her acting as the would-be suicide bomber is very well conveyed. While she was preparing for the role, she took great attention to learn more about female bombers and what they were like. She said that:

“I didn’t understand it until I looked at a picture of some girls at a training base. They were lined up with huge guns in their hands, and their cyanide capsules, with these phenomenal smiles on their faces. Its like they were saying, ‘I’m the person you’re going to be seeing in the paper tomorrow.’ It’s such a mixture of enormous selflessness and yet at the same time they wanted to be immortal.”

Whether this movie actually does give a complete answer to the mindset of a militant with a fanatical drive is up to the individual viewer to decide. However, it’s probably the best fictional interpretation of suicide bombers on film, especially in the context of the political issues plaguing the subcontinent. It a mesmerising film that is necessary viewing for people in Pakistan, where there are still some extremists who are more then willing to carry out suicide attacks, even though they may not be pregnant with children themselves.

View’s weekly classics archive here.

Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at


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Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at and can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (44) Closed

S Sep 14, 2012 11:55am
Hi Halima, I am an ethnic Pakistani from the UK and I used to run an arts cinema here in the UK. You may be interested to know that it was myself who premiered this specific film in our city and promoted it positively on much the same basis as the reviewer here. However, in the bigger picture I can see how Pakistan is regarded negatively by the Western media. On the one hand Pakistani's are expected to face up to suicide bombers, but from where I'm standing, I do not see equivalent films in the West about the enormous killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, or drone assassinations, or political interference in the muslim countries. If the West will not face up to their own failures, why is there an expectation that Pakistanis should be unilaterally aplogetic for their own political problems? I have zero objection to the people of Pakistan seeing this film and making up their own minds, but it is definitely not "necessary viewing" as described, or should I say prescribed? Indeed, let me "prescribe" The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or Cross of Iron or Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and a thousand other films in place of The Terrorst. All the best.
Anshu Sep 14, 2012 10:45pm
+ 1 Jehan
OneManOnePlanet Sep 15, 2012 06:30pm
You don't kill innocent people in the name of a "cause". Your comments are example of utter ignorance. I am sorry to see anyone who is brainwashed by the so called religious leaders. I hope and pray that you can step back, put your emotions and anger aside, and look at the world in a different manner. If you want to make a positive change in the world and control your destiny then work hard, get good education and focus on th epositive things in life!
Ragu Sep 15, 2012 12:13am
I am Tamil and I am ashamed of the violence practiced by my fellow tamils- i.e. tamil tigers. Tamils from Sri Lanka have killed their own fellow Tamils though they are innocent. They deserve no sympathy.
Imran Sep 14, 2012 03:06pm
Oh please - you are still stuck in 80's. Move on can't win this with violence, but go ahead and keep trying (I mean keep dying)
adam Sep 14, 2012 10:39pm
Tanvir, give it up man. You have been brainwashed by the conspiracy theorists. The muslims have not contributed to human development for over a 1000 years. The most recent contributions we have made to society is violence and intolerance. The rest of the world is moving ahead, christian, jew, hindu, buddhist, athiests, while muslims are regressing. Look at everything around you. The computer you are using, the phone that you use, what you travel in, hell everything that makes life easy to live. Guess what? Zero muslim contribution. Nada, nothing. west
Imran Sep 14, 2012 03:08pm
well said.
Ali Ahmad Sep 15, 2012 01:05pm
You and your obsession with Pakistan
Chaman Sep 15, 2012 01:45pm
This fanatical and brutal approach does not solve any problems. Some Pakistanis seem to have self proclaimed the guardianship of countries outside of their borders. All such matters can better be handled by the respective governments of the countries. In most countries people turn to terrorism because of the condition in their own countries. Killing the innocent can not be justified for any reason.
Jehan Sep 14, 2012 03:42pm
It is apparent that you may have seen these films but have not developed an appreciation. Anyone who puts Sergio Leone's The good the bad and the ugly and Kurosawa's Seven Samurai in the same box is lacking some serious analytical capabilities. Sivan's Terrorist is inferior to the seven samurai but is definitely superior to a spaghetti western. In fact they shouldn't even be compared. You should compare this to others of its ilk such as Nader Galal's Al-irhabi or De Bosio's Il Terrorista.
rehan Sep 14, 2012 12:30pm
That is *exactly* what caught my attention ! Why necessary viewing for Pakistan only? Why not India ? US ? Afghanistan ? It seems to suggest that the author of this article has identified terrorism as something that is limited to Pakistan only ! If that is the case then "Slumdog Millionaire" is a must for every Indian to see what "Incredible" India really is !
Sudhir Deodhar Sep 15, 2012 09:45am
west has done wrong in iraq, pakistan, libiya etc does not justify wrong doing by other side... what has pakistan gained or will gain from such killing acts.... is pakistan trying to achive peace and prosperity by killing innocent or those who cross them
param Sep 15, 2012 01:47am
it was a movie made in India highlighting internal problem and its acceptance, for viewers to face it and resolve it, no bans on this movie and it was not an security risk, unlike pakistan where everything is a security risk. Will there be such a movie on Taliban, Balochistan! Huh. That's the difference.
Jehan Sep 14, 2012 03:34pm
Perhaps you overlooked the point that this is an Indian film and many Indiansmay have seen it. You proved the OP right with this knee-jerk reaction. What is wrong in suggesting that a well made film should be seen as it may be apropos for our times?
rehan Sep 14, 2012 12:34pm
what makes you think only PAKISTANIS should be singled out to watch this ? I am sure other nationals can relate to this too. Plus, there is nothing wrong with being defensive about what one believes in and if you really think the rest of Pakistanis are so "uptight" then you can always surrender your green passport and find a liberated country of your choice. Pakistan would definitely be better off without people who can't think of it in any way except as a terrorist haven
abc Sep 14, 2012 09:13pm
Mr. Rehan, presently, it is the hardest thing, next to settling in the "moon", for a Pakistani to surrender its green passport and find a liberated country of his choice. Maybe you are aware of the obvious reasons.
Anshu Sep 14, 2012 10:28pm
Well said. I see this cribbing day in and day out in all most all Muslim countries about how the West is bad and how the Muslim world has been forced to become bad. The world has a lot of bad and good as well. So please open your eyes and see what us bad. Stop complaining all the time. The Islamic world is regarded negatively is because it mostly is bad. Stop blaming others.
Vishnu Sharma Sep 14, 2012 09:46pm
He was not even prime minister at that time. And yes, The President is the head of the state in India.
OneManOnePlanet Sep 15, 2012 06:38pm
Well said Rakesh. Gandhi was a perfect example. I am a Pakistani and holds Gandhi in high esteem because of how he solved problems with peace and dignity. Violence is not the solution and cannot be justified!
OneManOnePlanet Sep 15, 2012 06:46pm
"S" I am a Pakistani living abroad just like you for last 30+ years. I must say that it may not be your intent but your comments came across as typical Pakistani mentality which lacks accepting responsibility for their action (or lack of). We fingerpoint and blame others for our own problems instead of owning our responsibilities. Sorry to be so blunt but I wish we can start accepting responsibility for controlling our own destiny instead of focusing on "poor me" or "someone else's fault" mentality.
Ahmed Sultan (India) Sep 14, 2012 01:04pm
Rajiv Gandhi was not head of the state as in India President is called head of the state and Prime minister is head of the government.
Imran Sep 14, 2012 03:09pm
It is regarded negatively because IT IS. Open your eyes.
Babar Awan Mirza Sep 16, 2012 04:01am
Rakesh, I agree with what you are saying. But the sad fact is that the more powerful countries are using violence and are justifying it with lies like WMD in Iraq!! Regime change in Libya and now arming the rebels in Syria. Unfortunately as long as injustices prevail. as long as might is right is the order of the day , these elements called "terrorist" will keep on emerging. The cure of terrorism is for justice and fair play to prevail. Not by manipulation or force. Mahatama Gandhi lived in a different time. Today , I am not sure if his peaceful movement would be very succesful in getting rid of the British. Bombing another country and killing thousands by lying and deciet under the umbrella of UN does not make it morally right just like the act of terrorism does not make it morallyright.
Naren Sep 14, 2012 01:31pm
Well said Halima. I agree with you 100%.
angry Sep 14, 2012 03:34pm
lets find solutions of our every day problems, like lack of food. water, good education and decent living conditions. when somebody.,has nothing to loose they will commit these acts.its desperate men who do desperate acts
Sandip Sep 14, 2012 12:07pm
Guilty feeling!!!
S Sep 14, 2012 05:09pm
Nice try, I tried to take offence, but I was smiling too much. For your information, spaghetti western director, Sergio Leone, is regarded as one one the greatest film-makers of all time in the entire history of world cinema. In comparison Sivan
Ahmed Sep 16, 2012 06:51am
Totally agreed. Terrorism comes in when you dont recognize between enemy combatant and civilian. In this respect, one could argue that Nato is also using terror as a weapon. But in their defence I would say that most of the terrorists, after committing acts of terror go back in densely populated areas - we have seen that in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Perhaps the best way to deal with them is to have specialized teams for anti terrorist operations conducted with surgical precision.
rehan Sep 16, 2012 08:39am
We have enough of real life terrorism and can do very well without films that suggest that terrorism is something that is related only to Pakistan. And there is nothing wrong with a knee-jerk reaction ; secularists have a knee-jerk reaction to religion too , isn't that so I don't think there is a big problem here if they witness knee jerk reactions too once in a while!
Halima J Sep 14, 2012 11:18am
It is a mind set like this that stunts our progress. Nowhere has the author stated that he is ashamed of Pakistan or that all Pakistanis are terrorists. He is simply saying that Pakistanis should watch the film because they will be able to relate to the subject matter. If you are aware of Pakistanis trying to survive rising prices and fuel shortages. Then you must be more than aware that a lot of Pakistanis are dying in suicide bombings too? Or are you going to negate that in trying to keep "the Pakistani dream" alive? Please stop jumping on the defensive on any and every thing, most of all a movie review; and stop dragging down the few of us left in Pakistan, who are not as uptight as yourself.
S Sep 14, 2012 11:07am
"a mesmerising film that is necessary viewing for people in Pakistan" - this is the kind of condascending rubbish which implies that the journalist is ashamed of Pakistan and implies that the Pakistani people are collectively terrorists. Though many Pakistanis have a hard time simply trying to survive rising prices, fuel shortages and navigating petty officials, the dream of Pakistan is very much alive and I admire it. I have seen The Terrorist and it is a badly made pile of garbage, thank you.
BRR Sep 15, 2012 11:26pm
The writer's point is lost amidst then knee-jerk reaction of readers who get offended at the drop of a hat.
sri1ram Sep 15, 2012 10:50am
This is an alien language that you speak, do you really think, the majority of brainwashed people here (excluding Indians) will understand?
Tanvir Sep 14, 2012 02:41pm
Well said against this propaganda film.
jk Sep 14, 2012 07:40pm
This is another propaganda film, and this time Pegans are using their media power.I believe the author should have said "Must see for all the 18 separatist movement leaders in India too..."
pathanoo Sep 14, 2012 06:12pm
The difference, Tanvir, between a soldier jumping in to a declared war and a suicide bomber is that the soldier kills another soldier of th eopposite side who is armed and intent on killing him. Neither one of the soldiers go out looking for innocent men, women and children to kill. Where as the suicide bomber, no matter the cause, does not differentiate between the innocent and who he thinks are his enemies. He kills with impunity and nary a thought for the innocent lives he takes. Surprised you can't see the difference. It is so basic.
Khalid Latif Sep 14, 2012 05:23pm
A garbage, indeed. In fact, a propoganda tool.
Tanvir Sep 14, 2012 02:52pm
What the film does not show or talk about is the various forms of injustices that have been done to a group of people (Palestinians, Kashmiris and others) that have driven them to sacrifice themselves in support of their cause. There is no different between a person on a suicidal mission and a soldier jumping into a declared legal war knowing that he might be killed any time, except that a suicidal mission is not accepted legal by the agressors. We are being brainwashed by the West by calling all freedom fighters as terrorists to end the genuine liberation movements in the Muslim Lands. Only the West has the right to call their soldiers as freedom fighters in our lands like Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya!
AK Sep 14, 2012 03:14pm
Excellent post by S. Blogs on our 2 premier english papers are beginning to look like a mass exercise in self-hatred. Pakistan has huge problems and we should indeed face up to them. But why should this exercise in self-introspection be limited to Pakistan only? What about the west, India or for that matter rest of the world owning up to their mistakes as well? All major world powers have put in their fair share in creating this menace of terrorism and it won't go away till everyone (including Pakistan of course) acknowledges and rectify their mistakes.
Rakesh Sep 14, 2012 03:12pm
There is a lot of injustice in every society all over the world. But that doesn't mean that bombs and bullets should be used to correct the situation. Gandhi proved that more civilized ways can also bring about change.
desi Sep 15, 2012 09:03am
So what else is Pakistan better known for in today's world? Don't point to something 50 years back. I am talking about current scenario.
manoj Sep 15, 2012 08:32am
S, I have seen ALL of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns more than once. What qualifies an italian crew shoting masala westerns in unfamiliar foreign locales as 'world-class cinema'? CLint Eastwood is on record saying that he seldon understood what his director (Leone) was telling him (in italian). Leone's westerns have a place in the history of 'western' movies, no doubt. Claiming anything more than that is oblique proof for the past-tense used in your valiant declaration. [ I USED to run an arts cinema in the UK]
Rajiv Sep 15, 2012 05:49pm
Nice to see freedom of speech at work in these forums... good going. Wish it's the same (for y'all posting here) in real life. Good luck.
P N Eswaran Sep 15, 2012 03:59pm
Your comment "But why should this exercise in self-introspection be limited to Pakistan only? What about the west, India or for that matter rest of the world owning up to their mistakes as well?" is appalling. It is revealing how far you are from self Introspection.