La reine est mort.
The Queen is dead.
A legend, a myth, a bandit... Phoolan Devi has been it all. With the power to hold an entire government at ransom and the strength to sway the emotions of a million low caste Indians, Phoolan was the quintessential phoenix rising from the ashes. The lady liked to think that she was Kali maata incarnate, and today a whole nation agrees.
Phoolan's life is a gruesome example of the inhumanities suffered by the lower castes in rural India. Tormented by the interminable brutalities imposed on her by the high-class thakurs, the woman evolved from a brash teenager and a woman cruelly humiliated to the dreaded Bandit Queen as she was universally known, in an extraordinary life. She took justice and her destiny into her own hands, and boldly went where no dalit woman had gone before.
The tale has been documented and redocumented with several versions available for various palates. And one version is Shekhar Kapur's magnum opus. This movie is based (loosely) on Mala Sen's biography of the same name. It purports to tell Phoolan's tale as it happened.
Mired in controversy from the word 'go', Kapur's Bandit Queen is not so much Phoolan's story as it is the documentation of a sequence of rapes. But it does serve to highlight the various atrocities committed by the Thakurs in the name of caste.
The pre-credit sequences show Phoolan, a mere stripling of 11, being married to a 33-year-old man in exchange for a bicycle and a cow. The endless torture by her pedophilic husband causes Phoolan to run away back to her parents. Their subsequent rejection leads her to fend for herself by working in the fields.
The village headman's son attempts to molest her and she rebuffs his attempt, but no one in the village is willing to believe her word against his claim that she tried to sexually entrap him. She is then banished from the village.
When she tries to return, she is arrested and raped by the police. The abuse continues
until she becomes the lover of Vickram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey), a tough bandit
with a roguish charm. Mallah forms his own gang, and Phoolan is soon initiated
into a world of .315s and highway robbery and other sundry criminal activities.
When Mallah is killed, Phoolan is subject to brutal and interminable rapes by
the high castes thakurs.
The latter half of the movie deals with the dramatic killing of the thakurs by Phoolan in the infamous Behmai massacre. She remembers Mallah saying "Ek ko maroge to phansi ho jaayega... 20 ko maroge to naam badhega." Which is exactly what she does...she kills 22 Thakurs in broad daylight, in a massacre that rocks the entire police force.
The largest massacre in the history of free India by a group of bandits raises Phoolan to the highest echelons of notoriety, and has the entire nation baying for her blood. The movie then recounts the rest of the story, leading to her much publicized surrender, before 8,000 people, in Bhind.
Bandit Queen is a good effort by Shekhar Kapur, even though he just sticks to the rape and retribution theme. The performances by Seema Biswas and Nirmal Pandey are laudable, considering they didn't have much to work with in the first place (shooting, raping and running around the ravines, as we all know, require minimum histrionic efforts). Seema Biswas brings in an enormous tenacity and ferocity into the title role.
Phoolan Devi, at the time of this movie, was terribly cross with Kapur and pushed for its ban, because she was of the opinion that it was a distorted view, through Kapur's cinematic lens, of her life. It also enraged middle class sensibilities - several of them opined that the next time they would like to see a film about "Phoolan the person, not Phoolan the sexual toy". The outrage can be best summed up in Arundhati Roy's words - "Rape is the main dish, caste is the sauce it swims in."
Not everybody who is discriminated against or raped is drawn into a life of brigandage (though we aren't sure whether we should add a "thankfully" here), but it does leave indelible marks on the psyche. It is only sometimes that they manifest themselves in morbid ways. Bandit Queen is a fine portrayal of the impact that caste-based violations had on a tender psyche.
The lady herself is no more, but hopefully the tale will strengthen many other