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Weekly Classics: The Terrorist

September 14, 2012

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 Dawn.com’s weekly classics archive here.


Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com