6 February 2009

THE TERRORIST - (Dir. Santosh Sivan, 1999, India)

If you were to ask a film critic in either the UK or US to put together a list of who they would consider to be important and influential cinematographers currently working today then it is more than likely that the name ‘Santosh Sivan’ would be overlooked. Having shifted into film making, Sivan still seems unfairly recognised more for his work on films like ‘Dil Se’, ‘Asoka’ and ‘Fiza’. His extraordinary cinematography on Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film ‘Dil Se’ certainly influenced a trend in Bollywood cinema for a stylised concern with bold, dynamic colours to signify mood and exuberance. His eye for detail and the breathtaking aesthetics of his compositions are characteristics he was able to bring with him to the films he has directed so far. Sivan’s understanding of cinematography gives him a real advantage over most Indian film makers and this comes through most directly in his own films, constantly observing nature and society in refreshingly inventive ways. Also, many film makers in the mainstream of Indian cinema have regularly preferred to give precedence to emotions and narrative, reducing the cinematography to an element that should be realised at a competent level and nothing more. Technical competence was something that many films in the mainstream struggled to achieve for a long time but the rapid advances made by film makers in the South gradually forced many to take notice. Santosh Sivan trained at the Film and Television institute of India in Pune and is yet another brilliant product of a legacy that has helped to shape and inspire the careers of a generation of influential Indian film makers.

Born in Kerala, Sivan’s attachment to capturing the intimacies of nature as manifested in his recurring fascination with water perhaps in a way rejects the urbanisation of many Indian film makers today; his cinema is one that seems to take place in a mystical hinterland which embraces a rural context. Some critics have written about Sivan’s 1999 film, ‘The Terrorist’ as if it was his directorial debut. Though it is probably the film that has attracted the most critical praise of his films and notably with the support of Hollywood actor, John Malkovich, it was in fact the third he directed after Halo (1996) and Malli (1998). Both of these films used children as the main narrative subject and it is a theme which Sivan has returned to in his latest film, ‘Tahaan’. Sivan was quite unambiguous about the apolitical nature of his film, ‘The Terrorist’,

"The film is not about Rajiv's assassination. It is an attempt to explore the mind of a suicide bomber," says Sivan, adding, "I deliberately kept out everything else, including the politics of terrorism."
Director with a Focus, M G Radhakrishnan

Malli’s mission to assassinate a political leader is complicated upon discovering she is expecting a child. Sivan really does make it into something very matter of fact; a choice between life and death. Examining the psychological mind set of a nineteen year old Tamil Tiger, Malli, played by Ayesha Dharker, is one of the key strengths of Sivan’s claustrophobic and lean film. The wikipedia entry for ‘The Terrorist’ provides some useful production information that illustrates the severe constraints Sivan was working under,

‘the film was shot in 15 days, with natural lighting, on a budget of $50,000’


Micro budget film making of this kind is rapidly looking like a viable economic reality in the light of today’s credit crunch and some of the first micro budget productions to have been shot in the UK are due for release shortly. I guess constraints means a film maker has to come up with increasingly visual ways of getting across thematic motifs and probing characterisation. Whilst Malli is instructed by her co conspirators and resistance fighters on the details of the assassination, she warms to the unselfish affections of an aging farmer with whom she is staying. Had Sivan politicised the narrative then it would have easily turned into another disengaging polemic on the nature of terrorism but the fact that Malli is a young woman humanises an aspect of society which we usually condemn without even having begun to understand the origins of such anger and resentment. It is incredible to fathom that Sivan creates such potent and memorable images from natural light but I guess this is why he continues to be regarded in Indian at least as one of its greatest cinematographers.


  1. Great blog Omar. I couldn't find a search box so couldn't check if you've seen Before the Rains?

  2. Omar smells from dave and chris :D

    p.s ill have my film footage in for monday...dont you worry...have SOME faith in me :D