FEATURE BANDIT QUEEN
Bandit Queen. an uncompromising look at the life of female outlaw Phoolan Devi, is the most controversial ﬁlm ever to come out of India. Alan Morrison hears its defence from director SHEKHAR
hen a film becomes a cause ce/ebre and makes front page news in Britain. it’s generally because there’s a splash of blood too much here. a nipple too many there. Rarely do censorship problems arise because the movie’s content and themes are thought to be too subversive for audiences to accept. Over the last ten months, Indian film Bandit Queen has been praised by critics at festivals across the world. but remains banned in its home country; its director could go tojail for contempt of court merely for showing it on video to friends in the privacy of his own home. Granted. the film contains a gruelling — but far from gratuitous — rape and a distressing scene in which the female lead is made to suffer the humiliation of walking naked before the menfolk of a village. However. as far as the Indian government is concerned. the real problem with Bandit Queen is that it uses the story of outlaw Phoolan Devi as a direct assault on the injustices of the caste system.
‘lt‘s not that films haven‘t talked about the caste system before.‘ says director Shekhar Kapur. ‘but they have been couched in terms of entertainment; or with intellectual films. there’s an escape into analysis. and those films never go beyond one or two theatre releases. This is the first one that is taking it on emotionally and giving it a certain amount of realism. That makes it dangerous. because they know it will be a very successful film. it will be seen by large numbers of people. and that it emotionally provokes and angers them.‘
Much of the film output from the Indian continent alternates — to Western eyes — between garish TV costume epics or the song ‘n’ dance action of Bollywood. Comparing Bandit Queen to the rest of Indian cinema is like placing Ken Loach beside an MGM musical. The setting is a parched. blasted desert ﬁlled with characters of a lower caste than are ever allowed a voice on screen. As it opens. the eleven-year-old Phoolan Devi is sold in marriage to an older man in exchange for a starved cow and a rusty bike — the first act of abuse against her on account of her
12 The List 24 Feb-9 Mar 1995
sex and social standing. but also the cause of her first act of rebellion. In later life. before surrendering to the police in 1983. she became a national hero as the mythologised leader of a group of bandits.
The real Phoolan Devi. who has not seen the film. has nevertheless disowned it. saying with some justification that it is a personal violation of her sexualin and dangerously implicates her in the murder of 22 men of higher caste. The screenplay is based on her dictated memoirs in prison as recounted in a book by Mala Sen. the film rights of which Devi sold to Channel 4. Hov 'ever. after Kapur‘s lilm was completed. Devi was released and she has since changed her story. The director suggests several reasons why this might be so.
‘Comparing Bandit Queen to the rest of Indian cinema is like placing Ken Loach beside an MGM musical.’
‘Some people who want to see this film stopped have provoked her by misrepresenting it to her. To a large extent. it could also be that she has resold the rights to her story to a French publisher, who paid her more. and she’s living in a house which they gave her. The most likely possibility is that she cannot really make independent decisions: she‘s still on parole. she’s a pawn in the big political game between the high and low castes — and the people in power belong to the same club.
‘lt’s also possible that. since they’re looking at Phoolan Devi as one ofthem now and a political candidate. they need to restructure her image. They have to make her a woman more post- menopause. because as long as a woman is perceived in terms of having an existing sexuality. her sexuality is not considered nice,
Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen
it‘s considered something dirty. Therefore a woman is given a sense of shame for being raped because of the fact she is a woman. As long as you are sexual and you become attractive to men. it‘s your fault.‘
The story of Phoolan Devi is. in itself. remarkable. and the performance of newcomer Seema Biswas nothing short of astonishing. But Kapur‘s greatest achievement is that the film’s impact jumps beyond national boundaries, lighting the fuse on wider truths and. no doubt. provoking anger even outwith Indian communities abroad.
‘l’ivei'y day — today — a hundred women must have. been raped between the morning and the evening. and nobody goes to jail for that. nobody gets tried.’ he argues. ‘Rape is an act of domination. it‘s an act of asserting the power of a man over what seems the easiest prey at that time. which is a woman. And the man has a culturally imposed need to do that. His sense of macho-ism is not something he is born with. it’s something the system has burned into him, and now he responds to that burning.
‘I understood that Phoolan Devi‘s story could be told. keeping true to the story, and such a large part of Indian society could be taken on. The system of caste is general all over India. but the attitudes she talks about in her book are felt. really. all over the world. They are expressed differently. but the attitudes of dominance still exist. My constant fear is that people see the film and say. “My God. is this still going on in lndia'?". And I say. ‘You can’t escape by saying that; you have been affected not because it goes on in India. but because you recognise aspects of that in your life”.’ D Bandit Queen opens at the Edinburgh Film/rouse on Friday 3 and at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday I 7.