While the title seems to promise a politically charged thriller, "The Terrorist" is something else entirely. This richly lensed meditation on the value of life vs. the satisfaction of commitment centers on a distaff freedom fighter who's tapped to kill a dignitary via plastic explosives strapped to her belly, embarking on a physical and spiritual journey in the week leading up to the act.

While the title seems to promise a politically charged thriller, “The Terrorist” is something else entirely. This richly lensed meditation on the value of life vs. the satisfaction of commitment centers on a distaff freedom fighter who’s tapped to kill a dignitary via plastic explosives strapped to her belly, embarking on a physical and spiritual journey in the week leading up to the act. Winner of best film and editing prizes in India, pic may be too moody and claustrophobic for some but reps an audacious helming bow by veteran cinematographer Santosh Sivan that is sure to be grabbed by fests eager for something unique from that part of the world.

A veteran of 30 covert operations for a well-organized resistance outfit, beautiful 19-year-old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) has killed before but is compassionate enough to be haunted by the death of her brother, the latest in her family to die for the cause. Chosen from an elite group of teenage terrorists to be a “thinking bomb” that dispatches a never-seen VIP, she begins the mundane but dangerous tasks involved in traveling to the city where the deed will be done.

This includes being escorted through some treacherous jungle by a young sympathizer who pays the ultimate price, and masquerading as an agriculture student at the farm of Vasuderan, a genial landowner nicknamed Mad Vasu for his constant stream of advice and proverbs. As her point of no return approaches, Malli is increasingly disturbed by the memory of a tragic skirmish and by Vasu’s wife, who’s in a waking coma in the next room. As button-pushing time approaches , whether she does or doesn’t is no longer the point, and Sivan presents his climax in a way that capitalizes on the trust he’s built with respectful viewers.

Idea sprung from the actual tragic circumstances of former P.M. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, but finished product isn’t exploitative, stripped as it is of all specific political references save motivating rhetoric. Further emphasizing the metaphorical nature of the piece is the facelessness of the killer’s boss and of the victim, which also serves to underscore her growing isolation.

The show belongs to young thesp Ayesha Dharkar and, as a La Femme Malli sans gadgets or posturing, and possessed of huge, expressive eyes and a thick tangle of hair, she kills with a precise combination of natural beauty and mature nuance. This is just as well, as seemingly half the film is a series of medium to tight close-ups as she struggles with the true meaning of her awful task.

Picture is eye-catching, with gorgeous lensing and astute editing glossing over but not quite obscuring obvious budget restrictions. Memorable visual textures center chiefly on water, with key flashback sequences shot in real rain conditions.

The Terrorist

Indian

Production

A Moderne Gallerie Motion Pictures (U.S.)/Indian Image Prods. (India) presentation of an Indian Image Prods. production. (International sales: Indian Image, Chennai, India.) Produced by A. Sriram, Abhijeeth. Executive producers, Ravi, Sunil Doshi, Vikram Singh, Mark Burton. Directed by Santosh Sivan. Screenplay, Sivan, Ravi Deshpande, Vijay Deveshwar.

Crew

Camera (color), Sivan; editor, A. Skreekar Prasad; music, Sonu Sisupal, Rajamani; production designer, Shyam Sunder; art director, Sriram S.; costume designer, Anuradha; sound, Suhas Gujarathi. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 17, 1998. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Ayesha Dharkar, Vishnu Vardhan, Bhanu Prakash, K. Krishna, Sonu Sisupal.
(Tamil dialogue)
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