The Bandit Queen: One Tattered Umbrella and a Lesson in Dignity

Gitanjali reviews the controversy
By Kaspar Saxena

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The Bandit Queen
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
35mm Colour 1994 119 minutes Hindi/subtitled
Distributed by Alliance Releasing, Toronto

Gitanjali: Why did you want to do this film?

Shekhar: I didn't want to do it.

Gitanjali: OK. Why didn't you want to do it?

Shekhar: I wanted to stay away from the lot. I was asked to do the film by Channel Four television and I wanted to make escapist cinema before this. It was very convenient, I was very successful as an escapist cinema maker. Why would I want to take on issues that nobody wants to take on? And I knew that I'm not a gentleman film maker.

Gitanjali: What is a gentleman film maker?

Shekhar: Have you seen the film?

Gitanjali: Yes.

Shekhar: OK. We have a street that we pass where we all live in the film business, and to go to the studios you have to pass a street called 'shit street' because it's near a slum. The women in the slum have nowhere to go. So there's a drain there and they all sit there. You know? So, as everybody passes by you turn up your window and try not to look as they expose all their private parts under their little black tattered umbrellas and hide their faces. Everything else you can see. Those two worlds don't want to meet each other. And if you're making a film that your gentlemanly film maker would, he would put his camera inside the car and roll up the windows… It made no sense to do this film from inside the car or to roll up the windows. I'd have to drag myself through those very drains and drag myself through the smells to really make my film….

I wanted to brutalize people. I didn't want them to have any escape at all…
Shekhar Kapur, Director of Bandit Queen

When I initially heard that Bandit Queen was to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was quite excited and curious. It was an opportunity to see at least something of the remarkable story of an ordinary woman who has achieved a legendary status in India in her own lifetime. I don't want to elaborate on the skilful craft of this film, the cinematography which describes a striking relationship between the characters and a brutal, arid landscape, nor on the performance of Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi, nor on the soundtrack by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; I find myself not wanting to write a review of this film at all. Writing about a film, either in a positive or a negative way, is a promotion of that film. I do not want to lend my name to this film nor to the headline controversy that has promoted it thus far, but I know that questions need to be raised. This film is hard for South Asians in Canada to ignore: within the year, Bandit Queen will be released across Canada. It is one of, if not the first, film done in and about India by an Indian film maker to have mainstream release in Canada. An astounding fact considering the length and breadth of Indian cinema, one of the largest film industries on the planet.

Phoolan Devi's name translates as Goddess of Flowers. A professional outlaw and a leader of men, she carried guns and was not afraid to use them. She was wanted on many counts of murder and kidnapping and for killing 30 Thakur men in the famous Behami massacre, all of which brought her instant celebrity with masses of low-caste and poor people, as well as a huge price for her head. She became India's most famous and feared outlaw. For several years, she kept the entire Uttar Pradesh police force confounded and high-caste government officials quaking in their boots. When she was finally persuaded to surrender to police on February 12, 1983, it was before a cheering crowd of 10,000 fans. She was in jail for 12 years and was recently released on parole in February, 1994 by order of the Supreme Court of India, after a change in government. She has still not been proven guilty of leading the Behami massacre.

Shortly after her release, Bandit Queen, a film which is supposedly based on her life, was released to the world. The screenplay was written by Mala Sen, who wrote the book, India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. Devi is accusing the film makers of exploiting her story, saying that the film is largely built on factual errors, but that the scenes which are particularly traumatic to her show how she was supposedly raped. She told the Toronto Sun, "I wish they had killed me before they made the film." Her letter to the Toronto International Film Festival states her reasons why, simply but clearly.

The film makers claim that the film takes a sympathetic view of Phoolan, that they are helping her public image and promoting her "cause." Indeed, there is a grain of truth to this as the Indian press, previous to Mala Sen's book and the film, generally made her out to be a reckless monster, murderer, scourge of the high castes and the rich.

Granted, the Phoolan Devi depicted in the film is a woman who is moving towards her own dignity. However, her situation is not much different from that of the other low-caste women in her village and millions of women elsewhere who have endured myriad forms of exploitation and brutality in India. As portrayed on the screen, every time Phoolan makes a move towards her own dignity and the dignity of her family, she is met with wrongful accusations, physical brutality, rape and ostracism. It is not that she is a character who won't conform in a conformist society, it is just that she can't. What the film does not elaborate on is that her personality is what sets her apart. This woman talks back (in swear words) when faced with injustice. If the woman projected in the film is anything like the real Phoolan Devi, I am not surprised that she would campaign against this film that has been made about her.

It seems to me that this sophisticated version of the story is as riddled with fantasy and distortion as the early media hype. The opening credits claim the film as a true story. Indeed during my conversation with Mr. Kapur the word 'truth' came up more than once. Nevertheless, the sensationalism and simplification of complex issues comes through, even to someone with my western perceptions.

The film makers have gone the easy route, creating an attention-grabbing action thriller where rape and retribution have become the main forces in the story. The action is set mostly in the bandit world, in and around the ravines surrounding the Chambral river. The strongest scenes and plot points are either when Phoolan is raped or when she gets revenge on the men who have raped her. This makes watching the film a mind-numbing experience, as the plot wanders from one violent act to another. But where is this women's sense of justice, her growing celebrity amongst millions of low-caste people, and the growing threat of her presence to an entire government? These only appear as sketchily drawn sub-plots.

The film focuses on the abuses of the caste system and thus seems tailored for a Western audience which, it can be assumed, has little knowledge of the caste system or of Indian women. The director, however denies this: "I thought of Western audiences only in the fact that I didn't think of Indian audiences. In relative terms, I thought less of Indian audiences…I thought of a general audience…Only in the terms that I didn't pander to their terms of commercial Indian cinema with songs and dances. I was just making the film."

The most stereotypical 'male' reaction to a woman's rape is to immediately find ways to punish the perpetrator, it is rarely to restore the dignity of the woman or to give comfort and safety.

His remarks, however are contradicted by a report in the Vancouver Sun, of Sunday, October 8, 1994 which says; "According to Arun Datti, (a researcher on the Devi case) this focus on the caste system is tailored to suit the Western audience but doesn't tell the real story. The minute you go to Canada or England and say something about caste oppression, those white people, their eyes bleed over and their tongues start clucking…without knowing the difference between a Thakur and a Mala and a hole in the head. In reality it was not the caste system that transformed Phoolan Devi into a Dacoit bandit. The real story is an old story. It is a story of poverty and greed, pitting brother against brother and child against child."

I asked Mr Kapur about the process he went through to make the story and what he chose to highlight. "What happens is that you start choosing in context and then you have to make sure that you are not too prejudiced about that context. But there are certain contexts that you can't be prejudiced about enough. So there is the general story, which is that of the caste system and somewhere, I am not able to put it very well, a sub-conscious choosing of her personal life, those things that have nothing to do with the caste system. I am unable to actually say, except that, because we made this film without wanting to draw any conclusions, we said, we'll do it instinctively, and hopefully at the end a pattern will emerge…My instructions to my actors were, 'We'll talk this to death then trust yourself, trust that whatever we have talked about has soaked into your subconscious and on the set it's you and not your character. If you are at that moment you are uncomfortable, you are uncomfortable. It's you, your interpretation, it's not even mine any more. All I am looking for is moments of truth, your truth, not the general truth. At that stage it does not matter if the interpretation didn't come through (my italics). It's your truth.' I didn't know if I was for her or against her…"

Gazing under the tattered umbrella, he didn't look the women he saw in the eye, as human beings. It never occurred to him to ask why these women would want to hide their faces. He does not seem to get that the woman he made the film about is a real human being, still alive, with feelings, desires and a future ahead of her. Perhaps the worst part of this story is in the film maker's depiction of Phoolan's rape. It is common knowledge that women who are survivors of rape and abuse need to have control over the disclosure of that abuse and rape. It is an integral part of the healing process. Devi has been denied this right on a massive scale. It is one thing to enact rape scenes with a purely fictitious character and quite another when the story involves a real person. Phoolan publicly denies she ever told anyone about being raped or gave her permission to have her story used.The decision was made for her, apparently because the film makers wanted to get the point across.

Kapur said that he wanted to make his audience feel angry. "I wanted to brutalize people. I didn't want them to have any escape at all…And then I wanted them to understand, because this is what an art film is all about. I wanted them to experience for two hours what it must be like to be a low-caste woman. And those attitudes can be brutal, most of the film is designed to affect your subconscious. So that when you see the gang rape, the idea was to make the viewer feel thoroughly disgusted, not fascinated with the back lighting and all ofthat. There was hardly any skin in it. So, yes, I went out to get the viewer immensely upset. If enough viewers are angry enough something might be done about it."

The rape and retribution theme has been used before in Indian cinema (Zakhmi Aurat) and also in the West (Thelma and Louise). While both of these films are popular with many women that I know, it is still obvious to me that they are made by men. The most stereotypical 'male' reaction to a woman's rape is to immediately find ways to punish the perpetrator, it is rarely to restore the dignity of the woman or to give comfort and safety. It is more about the protection of property than real indignation. Men seem to think that punishment solves everything. It's any easy way out.

It reminds me of an underground comic book character from the US called Hothead Paisan, the Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist who is obsessed with cruelly dismembering rapists and abusers of women. When I read this comic I remember feeling, despite my pacifist leanings, a kind of perverse satisfaction. But, ultimately, what the Hothead comic does (and the film doesn't) is to take this line of thinking further by questioning the ultimate goals of these actions, somehow without invalidating the altogether livid feelings of the character. Apparently the film makers also did not consider the nature of their Indian male audiences. Anand Patwardhan's film Father, Son and the Holy War describes how men will jerk off at rape scenes at films. Is this what Kapur means by brutalizing his audiences?

In reality it was not the caste system that transformed Phoolan Devi into a Dacoit bandit. The real story an old story. It is a story of poverty and greed, pitting brother against brother and child against child.

A lot of film makers have a saying that you keep making the same film over and over again during your life, just in different ways. I asked Kapur what this film had to do with him, an upper-middle class Indian man and how he related it to the other films he had done, a weepy upper-middle class family story and a fantasy adventure. "Yeah, I grew up with this film…and as I said, I knew how not to shoot the film but to shoot it I had to get in touch with myself. And when you get in touch, then you face the question of how to shoot." In some ways I can see the portrait he has made of himself in this film, his own 'truth.' I think he assumed his audience would be men like himself and this film is his righteous reproach to them.

What might be more interesting in this case and more telling of women and the caste system in India would be to have a sequel to Bandit Queen which outlines what happens when a strong character like Phoolan Devi comes out of jail on parole and exposes to the entire world the private parts of the Indian and international film industries. A woman who, as she moves towards her own dignity, serves up to a massive popcorn-munching audience an action-packed thriller where all the women who have been raped by the film industry can have their retribution… To me Phoolan's story remains a mystery. Someday, I hope to hear more directly from her and women like her about their stories, as they might want me to hear them, because it is rare for Indian cinema to deal with caste and gender issues at the same time.

The only happy ending to this story, for me, is that this film and the controversy surrounding it have raised to profile of the issues of caste and gender in India and abroad and the depiction of the same issues within the cinema. A multitude of feminist groups, women's groups and progressive groups in India are all active against the film.

I asked Kapur what will happen to her now. "I hope she survives this jungle. The urban jungle is the meanest of all. She is a rising political star. A lot of people are jumping onto her bandwagon, and she may stand for the elections. But it's a dangerous place for her, if she doesn't handle it right she may go back to jail."

My hope for Phoolan Devi is that someday she can get a peaceful night's sleep.


Since last fall I have been watching the Indian feminist response to this film as well as the mainstream coverage in Toronto since its release. There have been some interesting new developments to add to this saga. Channel 4 and the producers of Bandit Queen are now insisting to the Western press that they were "…always willing to hold a private screening for Phoolan Devi anywhere and anytime. She has also been invited to all public screenings."(Metro Word, March 1995). The 'truth' is that it took nine months and an order from the Delhi High Court for her to finally see this film.

Shekhar Kapur has been hailed by Time Magazine and mainstream western media as an 'untouchable' in his own country for speaking out against the caste system. He has told the western media that Devi, in her case against the film, has turned her back on her low-caste past and her family. Phoolan apparently has another version of the 'truth.' In her suit she has accused the film makers of invading her sexual privacy by restaging her rapes for commercial gain, of prejudicing her trial (after which, if found guilty, she could be hanged) by implicating her in a mass murder that she denies having committed; of endangering her life and the lives of her family by grossly distorting caste politics in a way that sets them up as sitting ducks for retributive caste killings. Aradhana Seth, film maker at the UN Women in Media Conference said, "The film makers have appealed to the Supreme court claiming that as a public figure, Phoolan Devi has no right to privacy." The good news is that three judges in two different courts have not yet been able to prove her guilty of the massacre at Behami.

Perhaps the saddest player in all of this is Mala Sen, who originally wrote the Bandit Queen biography in which she, in loving detail, describes the process by which she gained Phoolan's trust. India Today (December, 1994) states, "Til such time as Phoolan Devi's own version is published, Mala Sen's book remains the most thorough and honourable work on Devi's life. For the irony is, that although Sen is now a defendant in Phoolan's case against Bandit Queen, it is in her role as the film's screenplay writer and not as the author of the book on which the film is based. The accusation against the film in Phoolan's petition is that the film is not faithful to the book, thereby acknowledging the book's authenticity."

Editor's note Since this article was written, the film has been released in India after some edits. Channel Four has paid a fee to Phoolan Devi and she has dropped her law suit. The film had a limited release in North America. Publication of this article was delayed through no fault of the author. I wish to thank Sheila James for her tea, support and input into this article.

Open Letter to the Director of the Toronto Film Festival

September 7, 1994

My name is Phoolan Devi. I cannot read or write. So I am asking a friend to write this to you.

I have been told that at your festival you are showing a film called Bandit Queen that is supposed to be the story of my life.

I have never met the people who made the film, and I have not been shown this film. I have asked them to show it to me, they have refused. They have given everybody the impression that I am being contradictory and that I did not want to see it. This is totally untrue.

I have been told that the main theme of this film is about how I was raped and how many times. I have never once spoken of my rape. To anyone.

I would like to ask you sir, you and your audience what you would feel if you knew the most private and humiliating moments of your life were being screened for other people's entertainment? Without your permission, without you having been shown the film.

If this film had been about the rape and humiliation of your daughter, or your wife, your mother or your sister, however well made the film was, would you have shown it at your festival? Would you sell tickets for the show? I think you must be a man. Just as the makers of this film are men. I cannot imagine that a woman would do this to another woman. Anything else, but not this.

My humiliation and my shame is not for sale. Not for any price. While you watch this film about me, while you enjoy my misery, I want you to know that I will fight this for as long as I have breath in my body.

Tomorrow an Indian judge at the Delhi High Court will hear my plea. As soon as I can find the money to hire a lawyer abroad, I will sue you and your festival and everyone else that is party to this shameful exploitation.

I request the public of Toronto not participate in my humiliation. I would not go and watch you being raped, if I knew that you didn't want me to. Please don't go and watch this film. At least not until I have seen it.

Please try and understand that whatever I may have done, I am a human being. Not an animal. I have feelings. I have a family. I have spent eleven years in prison. I am 32 years old, and have a life ahead of me.

Phoolan Devi
B99 Gulmohar Park
New Delhi, India

Statement From the Director of the Toronto Film Festival

September 9, 1994

Attached you will find a letter from Phoolan Devi. Her story was the source of the film Bandit Queen which we are showing at this year's festival. We are obviously concerned by the accusations she makes in her letter.

I have talked to the producers of the film, Film Four who are based in London, England, and the director of the film, Shekhar Kapur. They have an arrangement with Phoolan Devi and she was paid a fee. The film is based on testimony which she gave to a prison warder. Mala Sen wrote a book based on this testimony. Her screenplay is based on her book. Phoolan Devi has publicly gone on record regarding her rape. She has also met the people who made the film. I have been reassured by them that the film attempted at all times to be faithful to her story. Indeed, it is a sympathetic treatment of her life which finally celebrates her release from prison. Bandit Queen has also been shown at two other major international film festivals.

The film has recently been banned in India for reasons of content. The nudity and language depicted exceed the codes established by the Indian censor board. They have asked the director Shekhar Kapurto make approximately ten substantial cuts to the film before the will allow it to be passed.

We are very concerned about images which denigrate women, and indeed any images which can be construed as racist, homophobic or misogynist, or which celebrate needless violence. We do not feel that Bandit Queen condones any of the above.

We have therefore decided to screen the film as announced.

Piers Handling
Toronto International Film Festival
Toronto, Ontario Canada

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
No image provided
Kaspar Saxena is an artist.
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