BANDIT QUEEN (1994)

Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi in a still from Bandit Queen
  • Release Date: 30/06/1995
  • Cast: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajesh Vivek, Govind Namdeo
  • Director: Shekhar Kapur
  • Writer: Mala Sen

A sweeping and emotionally charged epic that boasts of stellar performances and emotionally charged drama

Phoolan Devi endured despicable abuse, torture, and racial discrimination throughout her life that eventually shaped her into a ruthless and murdering weapon that was devoid of any conscience or humanity. It was just a matter of time before she struck deep into the heart of a specific section of society who she held responsible for her plight. There has been widespread debate over what she had meted out to the men of the Thakur Community of Behmai. Some look at it as a genocide and compare her to the devil while others consider it to be a justifiable act of vengeance perpetrated by the gang rape and gruesome humiliations that she had to endure at the hands of the men of the same community in the very same village.

As difficult as it may be to find an answer between the two ends of the spectrum in this particular case, director Shekhar Kapur tries to present the story in the most objective and efficient manner possible by showing how the events unfolded without taking any sides or painting the picture in a  particular shade. In that lies the greatest strength of Bandit Queen, a sweeping epic of a film that upon its release stirred uproar and controversy of the kind that was never heard of before in the Indian film industry. The film was heavily edited and the version that we get to see now is a watered-down version of the vision that Shekhar Kapur had for the story. Even at that, it makes for a powerful viewing and the film is not for the faint of heart.

A young Phoolan is married off to Puttilal (Aditya Srivastav), a man 20 years or older than her. Puttilal marries her for the sole reason that his mother has gotten old and he needs someone to help her with the household chores. Soon Phoolan is physically abused by Puttilal. She eventually escapes from her in-laws and returns to her father’s house. She grows up in the village and then comes a time when Phoolan (Seema Biswas) narrowly escapes being molested by the son of the village headman. Ironically, it is she who is blamed and beaten up for the whole episode and banished from the village. She goes over to her cousin’s house and stays there for a while. It is here that she meets Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) a bandit in the gang of one Babu Gujjar (Anirudh Agarwal). Phoolan leaves her cousin’s house after she is verbally abused by his wife for being an unnecessary burden on their family and expenses. She is then picked up by the police for having nexus with the bandits and brutally raped during interrogation.

The thakurs of her village pay for her bail but she willfully refuses to submit to their indecent advances which results in the thakurs sending their lapdog, Babu Gujjar after her. The bandit picks her up and abuses her for days before in a fateful encounter, Vikram Mallah seizes control of the gang and for the first time in her life, Phoolan tastes happiness and romantic love. Sadly, her good fortune is short-lived as Vikram Mallah is targeted by the Thakurs who had for so long controlled the gang of bandits and is eventually killed. Phoolan is kidnapped by the men, gang-raped for 3 days by the entire village of Behmai, and then stripped in full public view. She somehow escapes from their clasps and meets Maan Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) who at that point in time was part of Baba Mustaquim’s (Rajesh Vivek) gang. On hearing her tragic story, Mustaquim decides to help her to form her own gang. With the help of Maan Singh, Phoolan sets out to consolidate her holdings on the gang and then launch a furious onslaught on the men who wronged her.

Child artist playing young Phoolan Devi in a still from Bandit Queen

Shekhar Kapur has a fascinating story to tell and he is aided to a great extent by a lot of factors that successfully raise this film well above its reach.

To play Phoolan Devi must have been the most difficult task in the world for Seema Biswas. The amount of abuse that the woman endured must have been harrowing for any woman to portray. Biswas must have felt the brunt of the gruesome tortures as she went ahead with realizing them through her essay. It must have been traumatic to even act her way through these sequences. Biswas is not only believable in her portrayal of Phoolan Devi but is haunting in her depiction of the treatment meted out to the character. In the scenes where she is shown abused by various entities, she extracts genuine emotions and gives us a feeling of how helpless and tattered the real Phoolan must have felt. These scenes kept adding to the reasons for doing what she is shown doing later in the film. I just loved how Biswas disappeared behind the character. A few minutes into her act and I completely forgot that I was watching a performance. She shares equally effective chemistry with her costars, notably Nirmal Pandey and Manoj Bajpayee, that contributed greatly to making some of the sequences work better. As Phoolan makes her way through the narrative, we see Seema Biswas discover the character and learn how best she can essay her. This adds a sense of awe and freshness to every sequence.

Nirmal Pandey has the meatiest supporting role and makes the most of it. He convincingly essays Vikram Mallah and successfully extracts our support and compassion for the character. The fact that we see Mallah as a kind of redeemer for all the terrible things that have been done to Phoolan only makes his fall and the subsequent subjugation of Phoolan that much more tragic. If Pandey hadn’t done a great job with the character, this portion of the film would have fallen flat and that would have robbed the film of a portion of its greatness. It is hard to imagine Pandey looking so perfect as Mallah, but he did have all the right vibes and exuded the correct tones to fit the bill.

Manoj Bajpayee as Maan Singh is equally proficient. He is someone who was by the side of Phoolan on that fateful day in Behmai and it is through his character that the audiences find a voice to react to Phoolan spiraling into an abyss. He is in many ways the voice of reason and the only support that Phoolan has. They share a wonderful camaraderie with each other. This part works beautifully even though it has no romantic overtones. Manoj Bajpayee hits the right notes with Biswas and the two conjure up the perfect drama that is balanced, subtle, and believable.

The screenplay and editing of the film are in strong keeping with the mood and story. Because of the sensor issues, the editing might feel choppy to many when they see the 1 hour 59 minutes version of the film but I watched it enough times to realize that it must have been a much laid out film but at the same time had a fast-paced narrative that was as brutally real as it was entertaining in a  different kind of a way. For a film that is 2 hours long, Bandit Queen feels racy. The story moves through a large chunk of Phoolan’s life and documents some of the key portions of it. All these portions are presented as episodes and each of these episodes is carefully constructed with a beginning, middle, and an end. When we see Phoolan for the first time we see her as a kid bathing with other kids in the river. She is called in by her father and then married off in haste within the next few hours. This portion of the story ends with her being picked off by her parents on a boat after she has escaped from her husband’s clasp. It is like a complete story within a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Every other episode in the film unfolds in this format which makes for much more engrossing viewing.

Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi in a still from Bandit Queen

The dialogues of the film are kept raw and real. There isn’t any filmic delivery or over the top writing here which effectively serves the purpose of the film. In an aforementioned sequence when Phoolan is brought up in front of the Panchayat by the Sarpanch’s son after she has successfully fended off his immoral approaches, the boy has his friend falsely testify against her by saying that it was Phoolan who invited him to have a go at her. The words that he uses in this effect makes the panchayat roll with laughter while Phoolan’s father is seemingly destroyed by it. Tears trickle down his cheek as his daughter’s honor is tarnished brutally. In a later scene, Phoolan is arrested by the police and one of the police officers asks her if she had the capacity to have intercourse with two men at the same time. Again, the words that are used and the visuals that accompany the dialogues will make most sick to the bones. There are innumerable such sequences that are elevated by masterful execution and poignant dialogues.

The film has very little background score but wherever we get to hear Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music, it is soothing. I wouldn’t call it the kind of music that elevates the visuals and the story, but it does serve as a good companion piece.

A lot has been said about the film and it has been branded as Shekhar Kapur’s sick effort to profit off a woman’s ordeal. A pseudo-liberal even went to the extent of calling Kapur to be someone who profited by showing the rape of Phoolan Devi and exaggerating facts. I, on the contrary, watched this film as I would watch any other fictional film. Bollywood cannot be trusted to make historically accurate biographical films. Even our documentaries are so laden with hero-worship and theatrical liberties that they can hardly be called documentaries. Hence to blame or call out Shekhar Kapur for not being historically accurate makes little sense to me. Once you accept the film, as a piece of fiction and concentrate on the performances and execution, it becomes an engrossing and rewarding watch. The fact that it is so entertaining even though it deals with such a horrific story only goes on to endorse the efficiency of the director for telling his story well. If Shekhar Kapur had renamed his titular character and called his film fiction, it might have even been India’s nomination for the Oscars. The film still won the national award for the best Hindi film and for all the right reasons.

I enjoyed Bandit Queen for its performances, story, execution, and for the fact that it was so entertaining and unnerving at the same time. I urge my readers to look at it as fiction and appreciate it for what it is. A piece of poignant and efficient film making.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

Here is the link to the full film:

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