“I don’t trust any man.”
The film Bandit Queen examines the life of Phoolan Devi against the backdrop of the injustice of India’s caste system. When the film begins, it’s 1968, and Phoolan Devi is just 11 years old. Phoolan and her family are Shudras–the lowest caste in Indian society, and she’s the object of an arranged marriage with a man who’s paid a cow and a bicycle for her. Even though she’s “not ripe” Phoolan is dragged off by her husband–ostensibly to do the work his mother can no longer perform due to her age.
A victim of beatings and rapes at the hands of her new husband, Phoolan runs back to her family. As she grows up, the fact that she’s a woman who’s run away from her husband leaves her vulnerable, and after being charged with enticing a headman’s son–a Thakur–a member of the upper class, Phoolan, is ordered to leave the village. She does leave, but then she returns, is jailed, raped repeatedly and then bailed out by Thakurs. But the bailout isn’t an act of kindness. Kidnapped by bandits, Phoolan eventually throws in her lot with bandit Vikram (Nirmal Pandey). And this presents a problem as “women are forbidden in gangs.” The Thakurs do not view Vikram and Phoolan’s relationship with tolerance–no doubt they reason that Vikram’s relationship with Phoolan is in defiance of the recognized hierarchy–which they, naturally, control.
Bandit Queen isn’t a particularly easy to film to watch–there are several rape scenes, and the sequence of the Behmai Massacre is not a pretty one. Based on Phoolan Devi’s prison diaries, the story follows her victim hood, and as always violence begets violence. The film depicts Phoolan’s character development through the major violent events in her life. In a great deal of scenes she is seen as a quivering victim in a merciless system, and then she returns breathing hell-fire and demanding revenge. Eventually forming her own gang, she became a notorious, legendary bandit with a formidable popular following. Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi delivers an incredible performance, and the film’s cinematography is exquisite. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the film Bandit Queen has a stirring soundtrack and is in Hindi with English subtitles.