ONE OF INDIA'S most acclaimed cinematographers, Santosh Sivan, takes the helm of The Terrorist, his first feature film as a director. Instead of a costume epic or historical drama, he chose to make a low-budget feature -- shot in 16 days for a mere $50,000 -- about a 19-year-old woman recruited by her rebel leaders to go on a suicide mission. The resulting film is stunning.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Sivan makes the forest where the rebels reside look both lush and lived-in, but as a director, his best move was casting Ayesha Dharkar as Malli, the rebel hero recruited to be a "thinking bomb." Watching everything with her large, dark eyes before springing into action, Dharkar also gives us glimpses of the 19-year-old girl behind the action hero, and helps to make Malli's fanaticism something human, something understandable.

Malli is one of several women -- all between the ages of 17 and 20 -- desperate to be assigned the suicide mission. Part of the reason is their dedication to the cause: a wish to help overthrow the government and bring freedom to future generations. Another reason is the chance to be a hero. But as the movie continues, we learn that there is another, even bigger reason so many are willing to give their lives: Most of the rebels have lost friends, loved ones, even entire families to political violence, making the rebel enclaves the perfect place for both family-like acceptance and possible revenge.

As Malli travels to her final destination, she is afforded plenty of time to think -- about her mission, her past, and the future of her people. She also starts to think about her own future, and what she might be giving up. This internal conflict is so well developed that the movie becomes less about whether she'll really kill herself, and more about her need to make that decision in the first place. Through smart writing and direction, The Terrorist succeeds in exploring the ambiguities that can be found within extremist politics.

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