One of the most controversial movies of its time, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen is a disturbing tale, in general of the oppressed low caste, and of their women in particular, in the illiterate rural parts of India. The movie begins with a quote from the Manu Smriti which reads – The low caste, the drums and women should be beaten. A statement like that in the 21st century sends shockwaves, but such a thing still exists in India, and we do get to hear about it, lost between the headlines of corruption scandals and honour killings. The director emphasises this is a true story.
Told through the narrative of the protagonist Phoolan Devi, the story maps her journey from being subjected to child marriage to becoming an easy victim of nymphomaniac Thakurs who oppress her, her family. The Thakurs accuse her of being a slut, and on those grounds she is thrown away from her village and away from her family. Phoolan joins a bandit gang, falls in love with one of the bandits Vikram Mallah, who kills the gang leader Gujjar, and becomes gang leader himself. But the Thakurs who fund and run the bandits, kill Vikram, and gangrape Phoolan and make her walk through the village naked. Phoolan then meets a friend of Vikram, Mann Singh, with whom she sets up yet another gang to take revenge upon the Thakurs.
The elements described in this tale come very close to make me cringe and create a very uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. Yes, I have seen many gory films, but there is nothing more cringe worthy than seeing an 11 year old being raped by her own husband, even if it is depicted in a suggestive way. I don’t know what sort of an adjective or noun would best describe the horror and trauma of a gang-rape, and the utter shame that one faces when told to walk through the village stark naked. And this is done to her by the heads of the village – the Thakurs ( the higher caste) while the remaining village joins in as spectators. Phoolan’s life is filled with such traumatic events. But does that justify her streak of rampant bloodshed in the name of vengeance? I don’t know. May be yes, it does. But what about the innocent Thakurs who got killed by Phoolan in frustration of not finding the two Thakurs responsible for her gang rape? Did they deserve it, just because they belonged to the same caste?
The 1980s were a turbulent time in the Indian law and order system. Just a few years back India had recovered from emergency. And rural India was still miles away from finding its law and order in place. The sarpanch and his panchayat’s decision was the one to abide by. And that meant, decisions made by the rich and the oppressors of the society, in favour of themselves. Well, that hasn’t really changed worldwide, has it?
But I do feel glad after watching Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. The realisation that I live in a world surrounded by people who respect women as they should be, is an assurance of the evolution of the society in the right direction. Kapur’s compelling visuals, especially in the scenes involving child Phoolan are disturbing and engaging at the same time. The line between reel and real becomes very blurred and if only for that, Shekhar Kapur deserves a big pat on his back. Like Deepa Mehta’s Water, a similar tale of women oppression and the manipulative caste-division, Bandit Queen is a story which needed to be told.
Seema Biswas won the National Award for Best Actress amongst all the controversy. Late Nirmal Pandey’s effortless embodiement of the rural dacoit Vikram Mallah, reminds us of the powerful actor we will miss. Ashok Mehta’s cinematography sets the tone pitch perfect – from the dark nights lit by candles and oil lamps to the dry scorching desert searching for a drop of water, to the reflection of the sun in the river water. It is a treat to watch Ashok Mehta create his wonders through the lens. And finally, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s immortal score to this tale makes it rise to the levels of a cinema classic.
Watch it you must, but not with family. This one’s for one of those evenings when you want to ponder upon something about the world around you, and feel fortunate.