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December 5, 1997


The unmaking of a terrorist

Santosh Sivan. Click for bigger pic!
Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Dhanu, a suicide bomber, on May 21, 1991. Director Santosh Sivan always wondered what drove the woman, even one committed to a cause, to this act of self-destruction? And set about trying to see the events that lead to the assassination from the killer's point of view, giving her, as an additional burden, the doubt that there was a baby growing within her, one which she would annihilate along with herself.

For someone dealing with such a play of complex passions, Sivan looked remarkably composed. He has a lot at stake since he has written the story and screenplay and is also the cinematographer and director of The Terrorist. Unbowed by the pressure, he worked on, at a sedate pace.

Between some intense shots, Shobha Warrier spoke to him about the film, and cinema in general.

The title of your film is in English, but you are making the film in Tamil. Why?

I wanted to name it The Terrorist because people will understand what exactly you are going to say. The Tamil word for terrorist might not strike a chord easily. I feel this name has a universal appeal to it. Yes, the story is about a terrorist. I also want to be very blunt in the film.

What do you mean blunt? Are you going to depict stark reality?

No, there is no stark reality in the film. The stark reality of terrorism is a lot of violence. My film is not a glorification of terrorism. It is about the psychology of a terrorist and what drives or attracts youngsters to terrorism. I always wondered what makes them so committed to such a cause for which they consciously kill themselves. They not only lay down their own lives, but take other lives too.

A still from The Terrorist. Click for bigger pic!
I am looking at terrorism through the mind of a 19-year-old girl who is a committed person like all terrorists are. She is brainwashed to such an extent that she believes there is violence in birth, violence in death and violence in between birth and death, that is in life itself.

My film is about her coming to a village pretending to be a student, but actually on a mission to assassinate a political leader. Her role is that of a suicide bomber. What I have portrayed is her journey as a woman in the last five days.

It is like this: her days are numbered. She is mentally prepared to give up her life. It will be a difficult period for any human being. So, I want to creep into her mind and see what she thinks. It is more a psychological film than anything else. I always felt that if a person starts thinking about what she is going to do, she may not go ahead with it. So I made her think. When she starts thinking, a change takes place insider her and she wants to run away, leaving everything. The film does not end in a full stop.

From where did the spark of the story come? From the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi?

Yes, you are right. But this film is not about an assassination. What came to my mind after the tragic event was, what could have made her not do it, not press the button of death. It puzzled me the more I thought about it. Then I wondered, if she could offer something to the world as a woman, would she not have retreated? What can she offer to the world which only she as a woman can? That is, her creativity.

In terms of motherhood?

Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur, minutes before he died. Click for bigger pic!
Yes, motherhood. So, I am trying to bring in a point when she believes that she may be carrying a life inside her womb. She is fighting for the future of her country and her people. But when she thinks about a future which may be inside her, she becomes totally confused. My film is about her conflict.

Please don't think that the story is about a pregnant girl. She is not actually pregnant. What happens is, on a rainy day she rescues a young man after a bomb blast, and somehow they end up having sex.

The farmer in the film is an advisor to her, who talks philosophically about everything in life. It is the farmer who tells her that she may be carrying a child inside. But the revelation makes her confused. As she ties the belt bomb around her waist, she thinks of a life inside her. She is going to explode and kill others for a better future. But what is her future? Where does her future lie? She is dazed and confused, confused about her whole mission.

Does she complete her mission?

I don't want to end the film in a full stop. I want to leave something to the viewer's imagination. She may or may not do it. But I feel that she will not.

Were you at any point of time distributed by the kind of terrorism that we see all over the world?

Santosh Sivan directing Ayesha Dharker Click for bigger pic!
To tell you frankly, I am not obsessed with terrorism. But I want to make people think even after they finish watching the film. Something about the film should come back to the viewer's mind.

If I am honest about any film, I am sure it would appeal to everyone. Then, I realised that this story idea came to mind again and again for the last few years. I am still amazed at the way the mind of a suicide bomber functions. Finally I decided to give shape to the idea which remained in my mind, appearing and disappearing quite often. Then I began looking for the right girl. After a long search, I met this girl (Ayesha Dharker) and found her very good.... I am sure people would like the film even though it is off-beat.

By off-beat, what exactly do you mean?

A film without songs and dances. When you look at films from one angle, you can say you make films for a particular audience. When I say, off-beat, what I mean is, I am not making this film for the masses who come basically for entertainment. When you say off-beat, you also aim at an educated audience who look at cinema differently. People also generally feel this kind of films is boring. But I would like to retain the audience interest in the film.

'If one person dies it is a tragedy. If thousands die, it is statistics'

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