“Honourable and respected Inspector General sahib, I learn from several Hindi journals that you have been making speeches saying that you will have us dacoits shot like pye-dogs. I, hereby, give you notice that if you do not stop bakwas (nonsense) of this kind, I will have your revered mother abducted and so thoroughly raped by my men that she will need medical attention. So take heed.”
-Phoolan Devi’s letter to an Indian police officer.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Shekhar Kapur’s riveting movie ‘Bandit Queen’ first stirred a firestorm of controversy in India, and over 10 years since the movie’s infamous subject matter, Phoolan Devi, was shot dead in New Delhi. Now after the passage of time and away from the controversy that surrounded the film, it can truly be acknowledged as a masterpiece of film making. It’s a powerful portrayal of one woman’s fight, however questionable the method, to get revenge for her brutal treatment in a patriarchal society where caste and gender is the standard by which one gets respect and dignity.
Phoolan Devi was to some a Robin Hood-like figure who was revered by India’s lower castes as a heroine who fought back against an unjust caste system and sent a strong message to those who sat at the top of the pecking order that their maltreatment of the lower castes will not be tolerated. Women, especially saw her as a courageous and gutsy lady who took matters into her own hands to maintain her own honour in a male dominated society. Others, however, saw her as a vicious killer and a dacoit who murdered and robbed upper-caste landlords, without any pity and remorse.
The incident that made her famous in India and around the world was the 1981 massacre of 24 upper-caste Thakur men in the village of Behmai in Uttar Pradesh. The men were largely innocent and did not have anything to do with the sexual abuse that she been forced to endure over the years. Never the less, the massacre made her reputation and alarmed the corridors of power in Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi who set up a massive police hunt to arrest her.
The movie does not claim to make any moral judgment on her, but simply tells the story of a woman who was dealt a very bad hand by life and how she dealt with that unfortunate reality.
The film starts and ends with a foul-mouthed bang. The opening sequence shows the older Phoolan Devi shouting at the screen ‘I am Phoolan Devi, you @*#$^&’, while the younger version repeats the swear word at the end of the film, almost as an act of defiance to the audience. Between these bookended sequences we are told her tragic story and her rise to infamy.
She was born in a small village in Ghura ka Purwa, into the Mallah subcaste. At the age of 11 she is married to a man named name Putti Lal, who is nearly thrice her age, after the groom paid her parents a cow and a bicycle for her hand in marriage. Putti Lal turns out to be a physically abusive husband who wastes no time in violating her. She stays with him a few days but returns home to her parents because she is unhappy. After being sent back to her husband she stays with him only for a few more months and runs away again, this time determined not to go back. In the film her reason for running away again from her husband is due to the fact that he is an uncaring and abusive man. According to an article by veteran journalist Khushwant Singh, the real reason she decided to leave her elderly husband for good, was that even at a young age, she had developed an appetite for sex, which her elderly husband could not fulfill. Whatever the case may be, her family is distraught, because a girl leaving her husband was regarded as shameful.
As Phoolan grows older she becomes the target of non-consensual fondling and harassment by the higher ranked Thakur caste, which is blamed on her, rather than the men who actually perpetrated the encounters. At a village meeting, the panchayat decides to banish her from the village, because according to one of the men who tried to rape her, “she was itching for it”.
Devastated by the humiliation, Phoolan leaves the village and stays with her cousin Kailash. En route to another village, she encounters a gang of dacoits from the Babu Gujjar gang, led by a man named Vikaram Mallah Mastana, who becomes enchanted by her. Later on Phoolan is forced to leave the home of her cousin and in vain tries to have the ban on her returning to her home village lifted. When she goes to the local police to help her, they in turn arrest her and subject her to beatings and rape. Unknown to her the local Thakurs put up bail for her, which in reality is a bribe paid through the cops to the Babu Gujjar gang. Gujjar in turn arrives at her home to collect his prize.
As with many of the men she encounters, he is a violent man who resorts to thuggery to get what he wants. Vikram Mallah is the only man who treats her with some respect and is resentful of the abuse that she has to endure. One day Vikram catches Babu Gujjar raping Phoolan and promptly kills him. Vikram takes over the gang and eventually becomes her lover. Later on Phoolan with the aid of Vikram finds her former husband and brutally beats him to death, as an act of closure to that period in her life.
While she seems to have found some level of peace in her life, this only turns out to be a temporary relief. The real leader of the Babu Gujjar gang, Thakur Shri Ram, is released from prison and promptly returns to take over authority of the group. Vikram shows him respect but is resentful of the advances the Thakur makes towards Phoolan. Eventually, Thakur Shri Ram has Vikram murdered, abducts Phoolan and has her brought to the village of Behmai. In one horrifying sequence, she is repeatedly raped by Thakur Shri Ram and the rest of his gang, as punishment for her disrespect at refusing his advances. The final ‘punishment’ and humiliation he inflicts on her is that she is stripped naked and forced to fetch water from a well, in full view of the local villagers, who simply watch as spectators.
After this traumatic experience, she recovers with the aid of her cousin Kailash and seeks out a man named Man Singh, who is an old friend of Vikram. Man Singh takes her to Baba Mustaqim, a Muslim leader of another gang. Sympathetic to Phoolan Devi’s plight he agrees to her request of wanting to form her own gang, with the aid of some men and weapons, even though he does not expect much from her because “she is just a woman and of low-caste”. Eventually Phoolan and Man Singh become the leaders of the new gang.
It is at this point where the legendary bandit queen persona of Phoolan Devi comes to fruit. Through her personal courage and ruthless nature she stands out as a leader in her gang and eventually goes down the slippery slope back to the village of Behmai where she perpetrates the massacre that secured her legend and made headlines around the world. After committing the atrocity and failing to kill Thakur Shri Ram, she becomes the most wanted bandit in Uttar Pradesh. The Thakur in turn helps the authorities in trying to catch her. With her men being hounded and killed one-by-one, Phoolan Devi realises that she has no other option but surrender, which she eventually does in February 1983. The terms of her surrender are simple; her remaining comrades must be protected and taken care of, particularly the women and children. It’s at this point where the film ends and she is greeted by crowds of cheering admirers who laude her as a true rebel with a cause.
After all these years it’s easy to see why the film garnered so much controversy and uproar in India. Phoolan Devi herself was one of the people who was not happy with the movie. The constant barrage of brutal rape scenes and profanity laced dialogue caused heated debate. But apparently what irked many people the most was that there was a fear that the lower-castes in India would be inspired by the film and may try to take matters into their own hands in the same way Phoolan Devi did. Be that as it may, no one can deny the power of the film to stir emotions of repulsion and shock. Much credit for this blazing and brilliant film must go Seema Biswas and her mesmerising performance as Phoolan Devi. She is the heart and soul of the film and commands our attention with the rage and anger that is conveyed forcefully through her fiery eyes. The late Nirmal Pandey, was also terrific as Vikram Mallah Mastana, her lover and closest confidante. Credit must also be given to Govind Namdeo, who plays the repulsive Thakur Shri Ram to perfection. The music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also deserves mention, because the hauntingly beautiful music works perfectly in tandem with the brutal images on the screen.
But it was Shekhar Kapur, who along with Seema Biswas, won all the plaudits and richly deserved praise. His masterful direction and vision for bringing Phoolan Devi’s story to the screen made Hollywood sit up and notice, leading him to become one of the few Indian directors who managed to make it big in Tinseltown.
‘Bandit Queen’ is a superb example of Indian art cinema, and a masterful film. It’s not for the faint-hearted mind you, and can be very disturbing to watch. But is a must see film for anyone who wants to appreciate the power of cinema.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com