1990s

‘Bandit Queen’: The Callous World of Caste, Identity and Blood

Pushyamitra Upadhyay’s Hindi poem “Listen, Pick Up the Weapon Draupadi, Now Govind Will Not Come” is like a clarion call for oppressed Indian women to retaliate against their subjugators without expecting a Deus Ex Machina. The context of the poem highlights one of the most excruciating events in Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic of ancient India. Draupadi, the tragic female character, is disrobed in the court of the Kauravas. The vulnerable woman heartfully prays to save herself from the dishonorable moment, and the Lord Krishna indeed extricates his devotee from ignominy by providing an unlimited supply of cloth to her saree. In Shekhar Kapur’s brutally realistic drama Bandit Queen (1994)however, the Almighty doesn’t come to a woman’s rescue when she is stripped naked in the village square by upper-caste Thakur. So, the titular character picks up a gun and seeks revenge.

Commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 and produced by Kaleidoscope Entertainment, Bandit Queen is based on Mala Sen’s 1991 book Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Dev. It narrates the life of a lower-caste woman named Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), who undergoes repeated sexual assaults and violence throughout her life due to her strong-willed deportment within the upper-caste patriarchal setup. Married at a very early age to an elderly and abusive husband, Phoolan ultimately returns to her parent’s home. As an adult, she is molested by a boy from the upper caste and ousted from the village because she has resisted. From there, one miserable event after the other happens in Phoolan’s life. She gets raped and beaten up by police officials, the leader of a bandit gang and upper-caste males. Eventually, Phoolan forms her own gang and adopts an eye-for-an-eye approach against her tormentors. Her subsequent killing spree garners attention by the higher government officials, and a manhunt is launched to nab her gang. Unable to withstand the forces, Phoolan finally surrenders to the government with conditions regarding the safeguarding of her gang members and the betterment of people from the lower caste.

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Bandit Queen Movie Film

Bandit Queen deftly focuses on the issues of caste, sexual violence and poverty through the prism of a woman who is exploited. Devi’s story, as presented by the director, establishes the harsh fact that the members of the upper caste have a long-standing commanding stature within the state, as well as within the ruling government bodies. Thus, Bandit Queen points a finger at how the state authorities are also responsible for the injustice meted to the lower caste people which, in a way, perpetuates caste violence. The antagonism between the between upper-caste Thakurs and the duo of Phoolan and Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) initiates a violent string of events. The role of Vikram in Phoolan’s life is of paramount importance. He sympathizes with her state of maltreatment and pushes her to fight for her dignity.

Today, due to the absence of censorship at the OTT platforms in India, some of the streaming web series use expletives in the disguise of brazenness. Even the sex scenes are shot without any aesthetics and appear as if their sole purposes are to titillate and attract viewership. But when Bandit Queen reached the theatres in India, it marked the earliest attempt to include multiple expletives. The film begins with a shot where the protagonist looks straight into the camera and brashly declares “I am Phoolan Devi, sister-fucker.” During the two-hour runtime of Bandit Queen, there are more expletives, along with sadomasochism, nudity and violence. But nothing appears to be offensive or distasteful. On the contrary, it appears realistic, allowing the viewer to cognitively relate to the plight of the characters.

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Bandit Queen Movie Film

The elliptical editing pattern of Bandit Queen  by Renu Saluja allows the movie to flow seamlessly from one scene to the next, charting the details in the life of Phoolan, from childhood to adulthood. The visual details, proficiently handled by the cinematographer Ashok Mehata, bring the ravines and rural locales to life, along with the agonies of the characters. The song “Choti Si Umar” is composed by the Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali and feels emotionally affecting during the opening credits when young Phoolan awaits her plight. Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned crew members have left for their heavenly abode.

In 1994, Bandit Queen premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight section. It garnered rave reviews from international critics, and Kapur eventually went on to direct the Oscar-nominated films Elizabeth  (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). But back in India, Bandit Queen had received stern criticism for a misrepresentation of the facts. In Arundhati Roy’s review, “The Great Indian Rape Trick,” she lambasted Kapur’s cinematic liberties. Even the real-life Devi filed a case against the film in court, demanding a ban on the release. Later, after receiving a cheque from Channel 4, Devi dropped the case. Bandit Queen also had to fight a year-long battle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), India, and finally saw the light of day in Indian theatres on January 25, 1996.

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Bandit Queen Movie Film

Despite being mired in controversy, Bandit Queen is one of the finest films made in India that pushes the envelope of cinematic excellence. Kapur’s 1994 classic is still relevant within the socio-political structure of Indian society, where atrocities against the members of the lower castes are still prevalent.

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

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