Director Shekar Kapur shows Judge Erick Harper that there's more to Indian film than wacky musicals.
Our review of Bandit Queen (1994) (Blu-ray), published February 6th, 2015, is also available.
Animals, drums, illiterates, low castes, and women are worthy of being
Bandit Queen tells the story of Phoolan Devi, India's notorious outlaw and folk hero. Opening titles and repeated assertions by director Shekar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Four Feathers) assure the viewer that this is a true story, but questions remain as to just how factual it really is.
Facts of the Case
Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas, Mumbai Godfather), a member of one of India's lowest castes, becomes a child bride when she is sold by her parents to a middle-aged widower for an emaciated cow and a rusting bicycle. Aged only eleven, her first sexual experience is a rape at the hands of her new husband, Puttilal (Aditya Srivastava). She flees him, becoming a shamed woman and an outcast even among the underprivileged in her own poverty-stricken village.
Her lot improves little when, with the help of her cousin, she makes the acquaintance of a gang of dacoits, India's vicious and fearsome highway bandits. The gangs, like all of Indian society, are dominated by the higher castes—in this case, a Thakur strongman named Babu Gujar (Anirudh Agarwal). He takes Phoolan, now somewhere in her late teens, as his sexual slave, raping her repeatedly until Vikram (Nirmal Pandey), a low-caste Mallah like Phoolan, takes pity on her and kills the boss. Against all rules of caste and gender in rural India's repressive society, the two assume leadership of the gang, becoming a sort of Bonnie and Clyde of Uttar Pradesh. They engage in all sorts of violence and robbery, their lawlessness (often conducted while wearing stolen police uniforms) almost a conscious act of rebellion against an unjust society.
Even this semi-happy state of affairs is not to last, however, and Phoolan faces more humiliation at the hands of the Thakurs, including a grueling three-day gang rape. Her brutal and bloody revenge visited upon the village of Behmai makes her at once a living legend and one of the most wanted criminals in all India.
Bandit Queen is not a film for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The trials and tribulations of Phoolan Devi are presented here in excruciating detail by director Shekar Kapur. From the small, everyday indignities of caste submission to the frequent brutal rapes Phoolan must endure, Kapur's camera never flinches and never blinks; the same will most likely not be true for viewers. In addition to violence and despair, Kapur captures some amazing images in Bandit Queen. The stark vistas of northeastern India's landscape fill the frame, its desolate ravines and crumbling ancient palaces standing as a mute witness to the story of Phoolan Devi and untold millions like her. Kapur captures brilliantly staged action, such as the raid on Jangamajpur village, where the sweeping arc of his camera captures both the humdrum of everyday life and the disruption of a dacoit raid in one long, carefully choreographed take. The film, perhaps a bit like India itself, is mesmerizingly beautiful despite the horrors it contains. Kapur captures the contrasts and paradoxes of Indian society in compositions that juxtapose modern elements like concrete bridges and highways with ancient traditions.
Seema Biswas gives one of the most wrenching performances I have ever seen in a film. The role of Phoolan Devi is incredibly demanding. Biswas has to endure several harrowing scenes of rape and violence, and she brings such ferocity and raw emotion that these scenes become uncomfortably real. Without this fierce, feral performance, the film would fall apart; with it, the presence of Phoolan Devi seems to leap from the screen.
The DVD from Koch Lorber films is, as usual, something of a disappointment. Their efforts to bring quality independent and foreign films to DVD are admirable, but the treatment given to such films leaves a lot to be desired. The most obvious drawback is the insistence on full-frame transfers, rather than presenting films in their theatrical aspect ratios. The people at Koch Lorber don't seem to get it: viewers looking for intelligent, challenging foreign films are not the sort of people who want full-frame or "family friendly" presentations. The quality of their transfers is a bit disappointing as well. Bandit Queen is no exception—this full frame transfer displays colors that are vibrant and lifelike, but overall lacks sharpness. Hard edges shimmer and sparkle in the hot Indian sun, edge enhancement rears its ugly head, and diagonal or curved surfaces suffer from a lot of aliasing. Blacks are overdone and inky, and shadowed areas lack definition or gradation. The picture is mostly clear and free of grain or source defects, but it's the little things that tend to show problems. The Dolby 5.1 audio mix is reasonably nice and clear but makes very little use of the surround channels.
The only special feature on this disc is a collection of trailers for other foreign films offered by Koch Lorber. There are some real gems here, and even the trailers are a delight to watch. Included are La Dolce Vita, The Five Obstructions, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Wooden Man's Bride, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, In July, and Sister My Sister. Here's hoping that at least a few of them are presented in the proper aspect ratio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Director Kapur clearly intends this film as a homily on the oppression of women and low-caste Indians. From the film's opening quote from the Manu Smriti he makes it clear that this is a story of feminist struggle and class/caste warfare. This message is undercut by the disjointed, episodic nature of the film's narrative. Phoolan Devi's life becomes a mere clothesline upon which to hang one rape scene after another, each one more brutal than the last, interspersed with gunfire and bloodshed. Kapur sets out to make a statement about exploitation, but his film bears an uncanny resemblance to any one of a hundred exploitation films of the 1970s. On one hand, it's blaxploitation given a subcontinent veneer, with the high caste Thakurs and corrupt, brutal police assuming the role of "the man." On the other, Bandit Queen homogenizes Phoolan Devi's story into a simplistic tale of a wronged woman against the world, a disappointingly standard-issue rape and revenge "girls with guns" flick. The underlying subtext of gender and caste inequality remains, but it is submerged in a disturbing and voyeuristic display of sexual sadism. Worse yet, her most independent and impressive (from a criminal point of view) exploits, such as the infamous Behmai Massacre, come after the death of Vikram and play out as a woman avenging her lover, hardly a liberating or original theme. Phoolan Devi was certainly exploited by those with greater power and status than her own, but this film seems little improvement. The character seems to spend most of the running time in sexual situations, some voluntary, most forced.
In any case, sources vary as to how much these themes actually matter in any telling of Phoolan's story. Despite the Robin Hood legend that has grown up around her, her brigandry was a nasty business, and free of such lofty ideals and abstractions. Indeed, even after her surrender to police in 1983 she downplayed the sexual and caste aspects of her adventures. She sued Kapur and the producers of Bandit Queen in an effort to keep it from ever playing in India's cinemas on the grounds that the film's voyeuristic focus on her repeated rapes violated her privacy. She reportedly threatened to immolate herself in front of a theater to prevent its ever being seen; her dispute was later settled for the equivalent of $60,000. (Once the film became a success and eligible for Oscar competition she changed her mind and gave it her blessing.) Phoolan embraced a more romantic, caste- and gender-conscious interpretation of her saga in the mid-1990s when she decided to run for India's Parliament on the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party ticket. She became an eccentric, ineffective, but passionate advocate for India's rural poor upon her election in 1996, which conveniently also granted her Parliamentary immunity from prosecution for her many crimes committed in her dacoit days.
The problem, however, isn't in Kapur's use of larger themes to illustrate the life of Phoolan Devi, but in the execution. The extent to which they matter in the story of the real-life Phoolan probably isn't that big a problem. Bandit Queen, in spite of its billing as a "true story," retells the legendary, romanticized version of Phoolan's story, and to many viewers that is in fact the real Phoolan, or at least the one they have come to admire. In fact, there are some who will probably disagree with a film that makes this little of her supposed "freedom fighter" role. Whether one buys into the legend or not, the fact remains that Kapur's approach reduces Phoolan Devi's story to formulaic exploitation cinema.
Whatever the greater themes or lack thereof in the real life of Phoolan Devi, the romanticized version of her life was cemented by her assassination in 2001. Even in death she continued to be exploited by those who had tormented her in life; Puttilal, the husband to whom she was sold for a cow and a bicycle all those years before, filed suit in an attempt to claim a portion of her estate on the grounds that their arranged marriage had never been formally dissolved.
The story of Phoolan Devi is fascinating, but Bandit Queen paints in incomplete and unsatisfying portrait. Part of this is a fault of timing; Kapur's film would no doubt have been much different had he made it seven years later when her full story was known.
Not guilty—mostly, anyway. Bandit Queen is a fascinating, harrowing film, and one worth seeing despite its over-enthusiastic exploitation of its subject. Kapur's direction is incredible, and few films are this visceral and challenging. Too bad it descends into shopworn exploitation clichés.
Koch Lorber, once again, is guilty as charged. They bring us some wonderful films, but they don't seem to understand what to do with them or the DVD format in general.
We stand adjourned.
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