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Bandit Queen (1994)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A harrowing and disturbing study of the underbelly of India, Bandit Queen is based upon the true-life figure of Phoolan Devi. For many families living in the subcontinent, a daughter is seen as a burden rather than a blessing. If someone else is willing to take over the responsibility, via marriage and a small dowry, the opportunity is often eagerly grasped. Thus Phoolan Devi (Sunita Bhatt), at the tender age of 11, is sold to her future husband. For such low-caste folks this is likely to be their best offer (a bony cow and a rusty bike), so what matter that Phoolan is still a prepubescent child. In her new village, Phoolan is set to work, taunted by local kids then raped (technically if not legally) by her husband.

However, even at this age Phoolan has a strong will, so she abandons her husband and returns home. Such an audacious move has important ramifications, especially when the predominant belief is that a woman is nothing without her husband. Years pass as Phoolan remains inconspicuous, though the onset of maturity makes her an easy target for local high-caste youths. They tend to regard Phoolan (Seema Biswas) as nothing more than easy flesh, which culminates in a near rape and her banishment from the village (justice is not a familiar concept here). Only her cousin Kailash (Saurabh Shukia) is left to offer her protection, to the annoyance of his wife. Kailash's relations with local bandits, led by Babu Gujjar (Anirudh Agrawal), proves to be a turning point for Phoolan.

A forbidden return to her home village is once again followed by trouble, this time when Gujjar's gang kidnap her on instructions from the village elders. Now a captive of the high-caste dacoits, Phoolan is regarded as worthy of nothing more than abuse and rape. Only Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) offers any compassion, partly because he's of the same caste. He also believes that respect should be earned, not bought, which leads to his shooting of Gujjar when he catches him raping Phoolan yet again. The high-caste Thakur members of the band are taken by surprise, allowing Vikram to take control. For the first time in her life Phoolan is treated with a measure of equality. Given a rifle, she fights beside Vikram and slowly discovers that not all men are despicable. This time of happiness is short lived though since the real bandit leader, SriRam (Govind Namdeo), is about to be released from jail and his attitudes are somewhat primitive.

Much like In the Name of the Father, a film made a year earlier, Bandit Queen doesn't provide the exact truth but an interpretation which shows what the reality was like. Since the actual events are unknowable, this approach is unavoidable but, in the right hands, this can lead to a film of lasting impact. Bandit Queen is such a production.

Phoolan Devi had the misfortune to be born both a woman and of low-caste, a position which automatically condemned her to a life of servitude. The events which follow are truly merciless, with rape followed by public humiliation and then even more rape. From such an onslaught of physical abuse it's remarkable that Phoolan survived, yet the power of the film is it depicts these abuses in a straightforward fashion. Such an unglamorous portrayal implicitly suggests that such degradations can, and does, happen to any female of similar roots. Even worse, rape is almost officially sanctioned as the right thing to do, since women are just whores who want to trap "innocent" men (with the side-effect that the men prove their masculinity and consolidate power). Bandit Queen is a powerful indictment of Indian society, yet that very society condemns itself by treating women as objects.

An interesting aspect of Bandit Queen is that Phoolan is not presented as a feminist, in the Western sense (since she isn't one). Instead, her fight back against repression is a personal obsession, fuelled by the white-hot rage of human suffering. She has been wronged by the Thakur's and vengeance is the key to quieting her soul. However, while Phoolan's actions are self-explanatory, the film doesn't entirely reveal how she feels internally. For instance, the conflict between accepting Vikram and her inner fear/hatred is graphically captured, yet this emotional chaos always remains hazy. On a larger scale, her position as a champion of the poor is hardly touched upon, leaving Bandit Queen as an intimate portrait rather than a broad canvas of historical affairs.

Unlike the majority of movies, Bandit Queen would benefit from a longer running time, giving more background on Phoolan's extraordinary life. As it is, the ferocious anger is palpable, with the unrelenting pace continually twisting the knife of shame a little further. Biswas' performance (her debut) is excellent, a convincing performance of pain, humiliation and retribution. With her help, the film treads a fine line of controversy and emerges as sensitive rather than sleazy. The remainder of the cast are fine but Phoolan is the central figure, thus hers is the only personality imbued with depth. Combined with an affective score, the result is a difficult viewing experience. The saving grace is that Bandit Queen doesn't preach or judge, it lets events speak for themselves.

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