Ayesha Dharker: From terrorist to Queen of Naboo

When Santosh Sivan's 1997 small budget 'The Terrorist' won critical acclaim all over the world, Ayesha Dharker caught the attention of a certain Samuel L Jackson. It won her the role in one of the greatest film franchises of all time. 

Shriram Iyengar

Ayesha Dharker remains an unknown in India. Her fame and popularity in Europe and Hollywood, therefore, comes as a surprise. Dark, exotic looking and extremely talented, she is one of the few actors who have managed to carve an individual space for themselves in the world of films. Her career has seen her act in Shakespearean tragedies, a Bollywood based extravagant musical, and a cult TV series in UK (Coronation Street). 

Few actors, if any can claim such diversity in their portfolio. Yet, it all began with her performance as a terrorist in a brilliant film by Santosh Sivan, The Terrorist(1997). 

Santosh Sivan is known as one of the most visually transcending cinematographers in Indian cinema. His work in films like Dalpati(1991),  Roja(1992), Rudaali(1993), Dil Se...(1998) ensured that cinephiles in India were aware of this Mani Ratnam protege. This is why few were surprised of his progress as a fiilmmaker with The Terrorist(1997). The film tells the story of a suicide bomber, Malli, on her way to a mission. The story was based on the assasination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Sivan's astounding technique and beautiful shots captured the pathos, struggles, and the innocence of a young girl tasked with the ghastly job. As the naive terrorist, Ayesha Dharker put in a performance that stunned everyone. The film went on to win the National Award for Best Feature in 1998. Considering the absence of multiplexes and a regulated space for such arty cinema, Sivan's film did not stand a chance against blockbusters like Yash Chopra's Dil To Pagal Hai(1997). Its controversial subject didn't endear it to the government either. It soon disappeared from the screens. However, the story was very different in cinemas abroad.

At the esteemed Sundance International Film Festival, the film walked away with the award for the Best Film. It was a firm critic favourite. Roger Ebert termed it as 'visually breathtaking'. David Overby declared it as 'the most beautiful film from India in years (maybe ever)'. One of the members of the Jury, John Malkovich, took up the film for distribution. In an article in the New York Times, the actor noted 'an absolutely hypnotic performance by a young actress called Ayesha Dharkar, whose presence graces nearly every frame.' He was not the only one.

While the film was creating waves in Hollywood circles, George Lucas had begun casting for Star Wars Episode II: The Attack of the Clones. One of the cast members, Samuel Jackson suggested Dharker's name for the role of Queen Jamilia of Naboo. Jackson had also watched the film at the Sundance Film Festival, and had called up Santosh Sivan enquiring about the actor playing the terrorist. Sivan recalls how the famous actor called him ' One day I got a call from Samuel Lee Jackson who was interested to cast the heroine of The Terrorist, Ayesha, in a Hollywood film.' The casting director eventually found Ayesha Dharker's contacts after sifting through producers, directors and casting directors. In an interview with The Guardian, Ayesha said 'I didn’t bother calling when I got the message because I thought it was a joke,” she says. “When the casting director finally got hold of me, she said, ‘Don’t worry. We hear that a lot.' Not the best way to reply to a job offer from Lucasfilms! 

Ayesha Dharker was cast as Queen Jamilia of Naboo. Although her character's time on screen was shorter than the much defamed Jar Jar Binks, she managed to make a visually memorable impression. The ostentatious make-up and elaborate costumes ensured that Ayesha Dharker etched her presence onto one of the greatest cinematic stories ever written.