Bandit Queen is not an easy film to watch. I first saw it at its London Premiere as part of the London Film Festival back in the 1990s, and was blown away by it. It’s a scathing condemnation of the Indian caste system and in particular, the way low caste women are treated within this system. At the time of the screening, I had laryngitis but I went up to the director anyway, Shekhar Kapur and mouthed thank you to him for making such an important and powerful film. What is truly awe-inspiring is that Shekhar Kapur is someone who enjoys all the advantages of the Indian caste system but nevertheless has the humanity and compassion to not only see the evils that such a system engenders but also the vision to portray those evils on film.
The film tells the story of Phoolan Devi, played with great conviction and even greater bravery by Seema Biswas. As a woman, you watch the film and wonder how Phoolan managed to survive all the horrendous things that were done to her and still always be able to fight back. The film is a tribute to Phoolan Devi’s spirit and the ability of human beings like her to keep on going despite anything and everything that is thrown at them.
At the age of 11, Phoolan is sold off as a child bride for the price of a cow and a bike, and is raped by her much older husband. (According to UNICEF 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India). Showing the kind of spirit that patriarchal societies find so threatening in women as soon as they show any sign of being blessed with it, she leaves her husband and returns to her home village. As a woman who has once had a husband, she is clearly no longer a virgin, and therefore assumed to be fair game by the Thakurs, the high caste men in the village. As in any patriarchal society (vestiges of which unfortunately remain in our own), they justify their own vices by blaming the would-be victim and decide she must be up for it. When the headman’s son tries to rape her, she fights him off. She is then beaten up by the villagers for trying to “trap” him and she is put on trial, where she is publicly humiliated and castigated for luring her would-be attacker and is forced to leave the village as punishment.
She goes to stay at her cousin’s house but is eventually turned away from there by her cousin’s jealous wife. Having nowhere else to go, she returns to the village where she is arrested, beaten and raped by the police. She is released on bail, which has been paid by one of the Thakurs, presumably considered as some kind of down payment for future sexual services. Later on a gang, for whom the money was earmarked for, come to take her away. At first her family refuse, but when the gang threaten to mutilate her younger brother, Phoolan agrees to go with them. Yet again, she is beaten and repeatedly raped, this time by the gang leader. During one such rape, a fellow bandit, Vikram, has had enough and shoots the gang leader dead and takes over the gang forbidding any of the gang to hurt her. For the first time in her life Phoolan is about to experience a genuine and loving relationship with a man.
Phoolan becomes an active gang member but it emerges that it’s a Thakur from her village who is in fact the real head of the gang. On his release from prison, the Thakur visits the gang. He’s not happy that a low caste man such as Vikram has now become the gang’s main honcho. In addition, he clearly sees Phoolan as his property. Soon afterwards, Vikram is mysteriously shot in the leg. Phoolan takes control of a precarious situation and manages to get Vikram to the relative safety of Kanpur City to be treated by a city doctor. But their happiness is short lived. With the doctor blackmailing them, they are on the move again. Phoolan goes back to her former husband’s village where she exacts her revenge on him by tying him to a tree and beating him half to death. She promises to kill any man who marries a child bride. Soon afterwards Vikram is shot dead by the Thakur and his cronies and Phoolan is kidnapped.
Phoolan is then gang raped by the men in the village. It is a horrifying scene and not an easy one to watch. It is a credit to Shekhar Kapur’s ability as a director and his sensitivities to the story that he is telling, that he manages to film this scene with a great sense of sensitivity and without a vestige of titillation or voyeurism. In this scene, he uses the image of the opening and closing of the door to the room where she is being held to great effect. There is no mistaking that this scene is no sex scene but a scene of unadulterated violence. As Susan Brownmiller states in her great book “Against our Will”, “It [rape] is not a crime of lust but of violence and power.” Gang-raping Phoolan is a means that a patriarchal society has of controlling and putting a low-caste woman in her place. They are punishing her in the most degrading and invasive way possible for having the gumption and spirit to stand up for herself and not kowtow.
Phoolan is then paraded naked throughout the village. This would be mortifying, demeaning and humiliating no matter where the story is set, but this is India, where, the film makes clear, Phoolan wouldn’t even show herself fully naked in front of her lover. As a woman, I found these scenes painful to watch, particularly in the knowledge that there are thousands of Phoolans in the world today who are suffering similarly degrading and inhumane fates.
But what is amazing about Phoolan’s story is that she still fights back. How she does not just crawl away and give up, I honestly don’t know. It’s clearly what the Thakurs expect her to do. Instead she forms her own gang with fellow bandit, Man Singh, carries out daring raids and returns to Behmai Village where her gang rape took place in the mistaken belief that the instigators of her gang rape are there. Fortunately for them they are not. Less fortunate are some of the other men in the village, 24 of whom are murdered by her gang.
With so many well-connected Thakurs dead, the gang is hunted down by the authorities and gang members start to be summarily executed by them. However with Phoolan’s fame and popularity entrenched among the lower castes like some modern day Robin Hood, the state government fears instability and what might happen if they execute her. So she is blackmailed into surrendering in order to save the lives of the remaining gang members. The film ends with her surrendering while being cheered on by the masses.
Watch the film! Even if you don’t exactly enjoy the experience. When I wrote this review there was definitely at the time a backlash against the women’s movement and feminism. I’d heard women younger than me (unfortunately the younger part is becoming increasingly more common) twitter on and on about how they aren’t feminists etc. while blissfully unaware that they are enjoying and moreover expect as a god-given right many of the benefits that the feminist and the women’s movement so arduously fought for in the West. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of women being paid the same as men for doing the same job was regarded by some as a sure fire way of causing the rack and ruin of the world economy. (If only they’d known overpaid bankers were far more effective at doing this). I can even remember when the police’s answer to a rapist on the loose was to tell women in the area that they should just stay indoors, or that the idea of prosecuting a husband for raping his wife would have been considered ludicrous.
According to the UN, “violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. Based on country data available, up to 70 per cent of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime – the majority by husbands, intimate partners or someone they know. Among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined”.
In other words, but for the grace of god goes anyone of us, that’s what make Phoolan’s story so chilling.