It all started with a cow and a broken bicycle.
In a poor village in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, a low-caste father agreed to accept those two things in exchange for his daughter. After all, he mumbles later in the film, "A girl child is a curse," especially to those born to lower castes.
Cut to a scene of Indian children bathing and frolicking innocently naked in the river, where a young girl still obviously far from puberty is told, "Phoolan, your bridegroom is here." And so begins a life a repeated rapes and public humiliations that will ultimately make this low-caste young woman an outcast . . . and a folk hero. Seema Biswas delivers a powerful performance as Phoolan Devi, who endured one abuse after the next and eventually became a feared and celebrated bandit—one responsible for a large-scale killing that became known as the Behmai Massacre.
Before any image appears onscreen, director Shekhar Kapur flashes these words: "This is a true story." And those words make what we witness all the more powerful. Against a backdrop of clay houses and sweeping prairie vistas, "Bandit Queen" provides a spellbinding narrative and an objective character study of a woman who protested the system of abuse that was part of their everyday Hindi lives. Kapur resists giving this woman and her bandit lover the romanticized "Bonnie and Clyde" treatment, preferring to tell the story in matter-of-fact sequences that are perfectly interpreted by cinematographer Ashok Mehta. Mehta relies prominently on naturalistic, medium-distance shots rather than dramatic close-ups or panoramic shots, so that the infrequent overhead shots or close-ups seem all the more emphatic. The multiple rapes are handled with equal understatement.
When the little girl Phoolan talks back to her mother-in-law, the husband punishes her by taking her forcibly for the first time, though he feels her and pronounces her "not ripe yet." He says, over and over, "You're my wife, you have to do this with me," despite the girl's screams. Sound conveys the horror of the experience, with the girl's screams juxtaposed against the man's penetrating eyes and quiet repetition of that line, while the camera cuts to the mother-in-law as we hear the screams continue. Such sensitive filming keeps "Bandit Queen" from becoming a sensational story, though of course the subject matter is as sensational as it gets.
The narrative moves forward in episodic fashion. After another abuse, Phoolan leaves her husband and is met outside the village by another man who forces himself on her, while others conclude that if she goes anywhere without her husband "she must want it." A village tribunal follows, with the lower caste unable to do anything but accept the testimony of the upper caste men who abused Phoolan. And just like that, she is pronounced a "bad influence" on the men of the village and expelled. With no place to live, she ends up at a cousin's house, but the fat man Kailash (Saurahb Shukla) is in no position to protect her from bandits that fall upon her. From bandit band to band she bounces, until one bandit, Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) decrees that gang members are gang members, and that a woman should be treated the same as a man.
As we watch Phoolan and Vikram we can't help but recall Bonnie and Clyde, but when we see how a group of bandits walks into a village and announces they will be the village's "protectors" (in short, the bandits' base), it's also evocative of what we've seen in the cinema of bandits taking over Mexican and South American towns, ala "The Magnificent Seven." There are even similarities between the real-life press coverage of such North and South American bandits and coverage of Phoolan's exploits, with the Indian press romanticizing her every bit as much as American writers did Jesse James, Belle Starr, and other outlaws. Phoolan and her gang lead a lawless lifestyle, going from town to town with the police following in close pursuit, just as law enforcement officers did with Old West outlaws. But what's amazing is that in this case we're not talking about the late 19th or early 20th century.
"Bandit Queen" takes place between the summer of 1968 and fall of 1993. In fact, Phoolan Devi was imprisoned for her crimes between 1983-94, and was considering getting into politics before she was shot and killed on July 25, 2001. It's Phoolan's never-give-up defiance that stands out most in this adventure. Her last words, at least in this film? "I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers."
"Bandit Queen" is presented in 1.33:1 color for this 119-minute film, and while there is a very slight graininess that's visible especially during sunlit footage of the clay-colored hills, the overall picture quality is decent. The palette is subdued but nonetheless rich, and against so much brown and grey and khaki such things as Phoolan's red headband really pop out.
There is but one audio option—the original Hindi, in a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio soundtrack—with English subtitles. When guns fire, you can hear true surround-sound effects, but so much of the film is dialogue and the action so centered that most of the sound is still channeled through the front center speaker, with the mains delivering more ambient sound than the rear speakers. As with the video, the quality is good, but not extraordinary.
There are no extras.
"Bandit Queen," especially in the second half, plays a lot like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," as the government pulls out all the stops to get Phoolan and her gang. If director Kapur can be faulted for anything, it's that we don't get a full enough sense of how celebrated Phoolan had actually become, or why. With so much focus on the hardships and brutalities she faced as a woman, there's less room to develop episodes that would give us that sense of greater context—to bring in the media take on her exploits, for example, or to develop the story along the lines of Vikram Mallah's suggestion that men and women be treated equally. By choosing to focus on the womanhood of Phoolan and ignoring episodes in her life that had nothing to do with female-related abuses, Kapur misses an opportunity to strike an even more resonant note for feminism. Still, this is an entertaining and exciting film, from start to finish.