Santosh Sivan, Roger Ebert and The Terrorist

Recently, Roger Ebert picked acclaimed Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan's feature directorial debut, The Terrorist, as part of his Great Film series. And of course it is - beautifully photographed on a shoestring budget by Santosh Sivan himself, the film manages to be one of those efforts that appears to be placid on the surface, yet cyclonic emotions roil just underneath. Roger Ebert writes:

This is not a film about the rightness or wrongness of her cause or the political situation that inspired it. It simply and heartbreakingly observes for a few days as a young woman prepares to become a suicide bomber. Her story is told with a minimum of onscreen violence and little in the way of action scenes; if Truffaut was correct, and war movies argue for war by making it look exciting, The Terrorist looks the other way.

I watch the film in horrified fascination. To die of disease, age, accident or even in combat is a condition of the human destiny. But to choose the moment of your own death and take other lives because you believe an idea is bigger than yourself: What idea could justify that? At least in battle you hope to survive. To me, consciousness is the all-encompassing idea; without it, there are no ideas, and to destroy it is to destroy all ideas.

The Terrorist is actually not the first Indian production to deal with suicide bombers. Gulzar's Hu Tu Tu and Mani Ratnam's Dil Se both came out earlier. So why did The Terrorist receive the acclaim that eluded the other two more lavishly budgeted efforts? A big reason, I believe, is because they were more standard Bollywood productions, hence severely hampered by the usual Bollywood idioms. By going indie, Sivan was able to tell his story without any affectations and the material itself was powerful enough to connect - at least with art houses outside and probably inside India.
On a related note, his website, is packed with sage advice for the budding cinematographer and auteur. For example:

The Low Budget Film...

A low budget film has to begin with the conviction that the film must be made, whatever the circumstances are.

A filmmaker has to get obsessed with his ideas to give it form, shape and body. The crew... small but highly motivated and enthusiastic. Individuals who are totally in the film till the end and sometimes beyond it.

A film created with an inherent sense of panic is usually driven by various constraints like financial limitations, deadlines and other pressures that give it a fair chance of going beyond its expectations.

Pressure brings out the greatest potential in a filmmaker. Necessity is the mother of invention.

You have to be really, really sharp with your vision and know what exactly you are looking for especially with a low budget film. It is very easy to lose direction mid-way.

Wise words for us wannabes ...

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- August 17, 2005 11:39 PM // Film