Santosh Sivan’s 1998 film is a lyrical study of one person’s journey towards being a suicide bomber. It’s a surprisingly moving film as it takes a very personal and internalised view of ‘the terrorist’.
Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is a member of an unnamed rebel army. She has a reputation for being focussed and ruthless, and is the sister of a famous martyr to the cause. Chosen from a number of young female volunteers, Malli sets off on a journey to infiltrate an event in order to kill the VIP guest of honour.
Watching this as a foreigner with only a vague notion of Tamil politics I found the lack of overt context threw the characters into focus. I’ve read about the real life events that may have inspired the film, but there is no reference in the dialogue that defines the ruling party or the guerrilla manifesto. I was free to concentrate on Malli and her colleagues and why and how they did what they did. What makes someone do something so drastic, and to me so repugnant, is impossible to answer I guess. Malli is a cool and efficient killer and prides herself on her record. While I didn’t like Malli, I did develop more empathy for her as her story was filled out little by little. She is billeted with a farmer, Vasu (Parmeshwaran), under the pretext of studying agriculture. Vasu realises Malli is pregnant before she does, but he doesn’t judge her at all. He has lost his son, his wife (Bhavani) is catatonic, and a new life is a thing to nurture and celebrate. Malli has to weigh up her commitment to die for the cause.
Ayesha Dharker is impressive as Malli. The film has little dialogue and most of it is task related so the character development comes from her expressions and reactions. Initially fierce and guarded, Malli’s journey away from the camp seems to bring her closer to embracing life. Her face relaxes, she starts to notice things around her, to savour her food, and she learns to have conversations. This contrasts with the almost robotic rehearsals for her suicide bombing, fittings for the explosive device and the nagging rhetoric of her minders Thyagu (Vishnuvardhan) and Perumal (Bhanu Prakash). Thyagu on a hairtrigger, always ready to eliminate any potential threat and slimy Perumal bombarding Malli with revolutionary speeches and exhortations to make everyone proud. She rarely had the space to stop and think about what she was doing. Her pregnancy and the life affirming philosophy of Vasu and his servant Gopal disrupt her blind acceptance of revolutionary ideals.
Much of the story is conveyed in visuals. Santosh Sivan’s fascination with water shows us rivers as barriers, as thoroughfares, as refuge. Rain and showers cleanse and carry away obstructions, allowing people to see clearly. Nature reclaims manmade artefacts – a tendril of creeper twines along a tripwire, ruined houses are covered in moss and infiltrated by saplings. Malli’s bedroom (Vasu’s dead son’s old room) is full of images of people of all ages and races, a tapestry of humanity surrounding her. Fertility is a recurring motif and Vasu tells Malli a story about seeds. The seed that put down roots survived as a great tree while the one that refused to germinate never achieved its potential. It’s not as simple as motherhood changing Malli’s priorities; it’s more that she starts to become part of something with a more productive focus, she starts to dream. Malli is often shown in multiple reflections, or in glimpses through doorways or window frames, reinforcing her fragmented nature and her layers of duplicity.
The background soundtrack was comparatively loud and after a bit of cursing at the DVD, I came to think the balance reflected Malli’s inner world. The dialogue fades back into the mix as sounds of running water, breathing and heartbeats drown out the words. There is a deep serenity that contrasts with gunshots and other sounds of violence.
While Malli is the focus, there are some beautifully captured moments from the support cast. The girls at the rebel camp audition to be the suicide bomber, their reasons and motivation varying widely. Surya aka Lotus (Vishwas) guides Malli down the river to her rendezvous. He alternates between boyish enthusiasm and jittery terror. Vasu and his wife are the heart of the story. I was terribly concerned for them. Whether Malli carried out her mission or not, they were likely to be hit by the fallout as either unhappy terrorists or government soldiers would be tracking her and her contacts.
It’s a short film at just over 90 minutes, but Santosh Sivan creates an immersive atmosphere that feels unhurried despite the urgency of Malli’s mission. The ending is ambiguous and few questions raised are answered. Theeviravaathi is one of those films that stays with me. I find myself lost in thought about different incidents or aspects of characters for some time after watching it. It’s a disturbing film but beautifully presented. 4 stars!