Brutal in its imagery, its story and its politics, Bandit Queen is a lightning rod of power and persuasion, telling the true life “horror” story of Phoolan Devi, a notorious Indian revolutionary in the 1970s and 80s. She became a legend for her uncompromising rebellion against the ancient Indian caste system and society’s acceptance of child rape. This is a difficult film to watch, but an important story, demonstrating the shocking treatment of women in India, to this day.
Director Shekhar Kapur delivered this uncompromising and powerful film, which garnered crossover attention, lining him up for his next project which was the critically acclaimed Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Bandit Queen is as unsettling and convincing today as it was in 1994.
Phoolan Devi is a precocious and headstrong little five year old, the second daughter in a destitute family that are part of the “lower ranked Mallah sub-caste.” Starving and desperate to turn their fortunes slightly around, her father trades her into marriage for an underweight cow and broken bicycle. The twenty-something “upper caste” Thakur man, from the ruling class, takes Phoolan from her home and to his village where she’s little more than a slave, performing menial, back-breaking chores. As she remains obstinate and single minded, her “husband” decides he must show her that her behavior will not be tolerated and rapes her. Phoolan runs away back to her family and village. Her mother is sympathetic, but again, as a woman, has no right to interfere. Now, still a youngster, she is marked as a whore and treated horrendously by the other villagers. While she is working in the field, another boy tries to rape her but she fends him off. She is then thrown into the center of town and beaten. The town elders fail to listen to her protests, as the attempted rapist claims she seduced him. She is banned from the town.
Phoolan grows up living with her cousin in a nearby village, but misses home and appeals to the Thakur authorities to overturn the ban. In response, she is thrown into jail and repeatedly raped. A troop of bandits, led by a giant brute of a man, Babar Gujjar, buys her off and brings her with them into the hills where he…(hold for it) promptly rapes her.
Sympathetic to Phoolan and sickened by Gujjar’s barbarous ways, first lieutenant Vikram Mallah Mastana shoots Gujjar in the head. Vikram takes over the gang of bandits, and slowly a true love blossoms between Phoolan and the roguish, good-looking young thief. She becomes his second in command, invading villages and exacting vengeance on any men she sees brutalizing girls. She convinces Vikram to go with her to the Thakur village where she and Vikram find her “husband,” tie him up and beat him near death as revenge for his treatment of her.
The head of all the thieves, Thakur Shri Ram, has been in prison for years, and upon selling out to the upper caste, is freed. He is treated as a returning hero to the band, and makes fun of Vikram who had been in charge until his return. Shri Ram seems to find Phoolan’s existence as little more than an “amusing” eccentricity of Vikram, until his true motives shine through, and he murders her lover. Now, Shri wants to prove yet again that Phoolan is less than human, and spends three days, along with the entire tribe of thieves, raping her.
Near death, Phoolan’s cousin rescues her, takes her back to his village until she is well enough to walk, when she pressures him to take her to another gang of thieves, where several members were from Vikram’s old tribe. Amazingly, Phoolan’s spirit is still not crushed. Instead, her bloodlust is even more palpable. She wants vengeance, and wants to lead a small gang to help cripple the Thakur caste. The gang leader recognizes she has become something of a legend, and agrees. Soon, she is the most powerful bandit, creating a growing throng of followers (almost worshippers) wherever she goes. Her leadership draws so much attention that the government cannot kill her without starting a rebellion, so they have to find ways to get her to join with them.
The story ends in the early 90s when the film was released, but fascinatingly, Phoolan’s story continued into the 2000s when she was elected to Indian Parliament. Phoolan Devi has become a folk hero and one of the most recognizable women in Indian history.
Seema Biswas as Phoolan is nothing short of a revelation. She is able to deliver a performance of one part naiveté, one part strength, as well as layers of intimidation, fear and rage, all housed in her tiny frame. Between her performance and Kapur’s direction, this is an unrelentingly powerful and important film.
Interestingly, the plotline shares many elements with the “revenge porn” films of the Grindhouse age, such a The Last House on the Left, and I Spit On Your Grave, although Bandit Queen is not gratuitous in any way, and if anything, renders the horrors that Phoolan must face with maturity and sensitivity. Still and all, this is a story of a woman’s perseverance over an entire society that believes women are no more than property, or worse, soulless entities to be humiliated and destroyed and made to take the brunt of men’s self-loathing. In that, it delivers its message successfully. Even so, it is not for the squeamish. Committing to Bandit Queen means entering into this world with your eyes open, and your ability to stomach atrocities that belong in the middle ages although sadly exist in our modern world. If ever there was call to action against gender inequality, Bandit Queen is that agent.