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Bandit Queen

Bandit Queen

By Richa Rudola • February 10th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
BANDIT QUEEN (MOVIE)
Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Original release: September 9th, 1994
Running time: 119 minutes

Country of origin: India
Original language: Hindi

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writers: Mala Sen
Composer: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Cast: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey

Bandit Queen

The recent horrific gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi shook something in all of us. As I grappled with the news, I recalled a film about a similar heinous incident which sparked considerable controversy and folklore during my childhood in India. I decided to revisit this uneasy terrain by finally watching the film in hopes of channelling my outrage.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen is, supposedly, a tribute to the life and times of Phoolan Devi, an Indian outlaw who left a trail of terror in the Chambal Valley in central India during the early 1980s. I say “supposedly” since the film opens with “This is a true story” but then proceeds to tell a story which doesn’t hold up to external accounts of her life, as mentioned most notably in Phoolan Devi’s biography India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi by Mala Sen from which the film is adapted.

The film begins with an adolescent Phoolan, born to a poor low-caste family, being sold into marriage with a man three times her age in exchange for a cow and an old bicycle. At her new home, she’s outcast by higher-caste villagers and treated not unlike a slave around the house. Her husband beats and rapes his 11-year-old child bride even as his mother listens in from another room. Eventually, Phoolan runs away and returns to her parents’ home where she’s chastised for leaving her rightful place as a married woman but is nevertheless allowed to stay.

Bandit Queen

Unwanted sexual advances continue to be heaped on Phoolan (Seema Biswas). A few years older now, when she refuses the advances of a group of young Thakur (high-caste) men, the local governing council banishes her from her village. An angry Phoolan goes to the police for justice and, in return, is arrested, beaten and raped while in custody. Thereafter, the village Thakurs secure her bail by bribing a gang of bandits led by Baba Gujjar to kidnap her. While on the run as their hostage, she develops a bond with a sympathetic bandit named Vikram (Nirmal Pandey). This bond soon turns into gratitude and love when Vikram shoots Gujjar dead after catching him raping Phoolan. Vikram replaces Gujjar as gang-lead and helps Phoolan exact revenge from her husband.

Soon after, Vikram is killed in a coordinated attack by Thakur Shri Ram (Govind Namdeo) and Phoolan is abducted, brutally gang-raped by Thakurs and paraded naked to an entire village. A battered Phoolan takes refuge with her cousin Kailash (Saurabh Shukla) before deciding to take up banditry in her own right. She teams up with Man Singh (Manoj Bajpai) to form a new gang and returns to the village to gun down all Bandit Queentwenty-two Thakur men associated with her earlier attack. Her infamy grows and she becomes India’s most wanted outlaw. After a protracted run from the law in the deep ravines of the Chambal region, Phoolan finally surrenders after negotiating her terms with the police.

In reality, Phoolan’s troubles with the law began on grounds of family disputes over farming land. Her cousin Mayadin cooked up a story that landed a young, spirited Phoolan in jail for questioning her relative’s take-over of her family land¹. He was also instrumental in abetting her kidnap by a gang of bandits which aided her journey to banditry. Moreover, she was neither sold into marriage nor raped as many times as depicted in the film. In fact, the real Phoolan Devi fiercely contested the depiction of her life and attempted to get the film banned in India. ²

The film depicts banditry in excess but fails to show Phoolan’s active role in it. Too often, she’s shown only as the meek victim, mostly of rape by upper-caste men, and rarely as an aggressor or leader. This is a woman who not only dared to rise above her rank in a deeply patriarchal society but also went on to command her own army and become an outlaw for 48 counts of crimes including murder, kidnapping and banditry. Hers was a life made in spite of, not because of, the tremendous events that marked it. Kapur could have better applied his artistic license with a more versatile approach to plot and character. Instead, the film was limited to a one-dimensional plot of sexual politics amid caste warfare, and Phoolan was reduced to something almost inhuman after a lifetime of rape and beatings.

SOURCES:

  • [1] John Arquilla, Insurgents, Raiders and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011), Ivan R Dee, Inc
  • [2] Arundhati Roy, The Great Indian Rape (1994), SAWNET -The South Asian Women’s NETwork

Seema Biswas gives a haunting portrayal of the vagaries of Phoolan’s tumultuous life. The final scene of surrender in front of a massive crowd of supporters saluting and celebrating a low-caste woman brings us much-needed catharsis for Phoolan’s sake, perhaps more than she feels herself. However, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the shabby treatment of the real Phoolan Devi at the hands of the very people who were attempting to pay homage to her life. It also made me question whether an artist has any ethical responsibility to a living subject when telling their story.

At the end of the day, art is that which enlightens by illuminating the truth. Bandit Queen may not capture the truth of Phoolan Devi’s life but it does expose a more universal truth of deeply rooted gender and caste-based discrimination issues in a society that continues to tolerate them. That’s the film’s greatest achievement. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the scene where Phoolan is stripped, beaten and paraded to a crowd of villagers. Men and women avert their children’s eyes but continue to stare mutely at the ensuing onslaught. Recent events of sexual violence against women in India only reinforce why movies such as Bandit Queen shouldn’t be forgotten, even if you can only bring yourself to watching them once.

Bandit Queen

Richa Rudola

Richa Rudola

Richa developed an interest in films while attending a weekly movie club as therapy during her pursuit of a graduate degree in Statistics. The interest evolved into a passion for the visual storytelling medium and she’s currently working on her first screenplay. She prefers films that view the world from a sociological lens and tell stories of courage.

Richa tries to use films as a means for becoming a better person and especially appreciates a film that proves her initial gut instinct wrong. Some of her favorites are All About My Mother, Rosemary's Baby, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Antichrist, In The Mood For Love, Omkara, Andaz Apna Apna and Ponette.

You can follow her on Twitter at @richarudola.

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