Controversy swirled around Shekhar Kapur's "The Bandit Queen", which was one of 1995's most discussed feature film. Supposedly based on the real-life experiences of a modern Indian folk heroine named Phoolan Devi, the authenticity of the film's script was under attack by Phoolan Devi herself. Phoolan Devi not only disavowed her autobiography, but also went on to file a lawsuit to keep The Bandit Queen from being released in Indian theatres. At this point, there is enough confusion that surrounds the factual accuracy of the movie which claims to be a "true story" must be accepted with reservations. Nevertheless, regardless of its historical veracity, The Bandit Queen is an excellent examination of caste discrimination, human suffering and the role of women in India's changing culture.
Two phrases encapsulate the backdrop against which the story unfolds. The first is a quote shown on-screen at the film's start: "Animals, drums, illiterates, low castes and women are worthy of being beaten". The second is a statement made by Phoolan Devi's father: "A daughter is always a burden...". It is into this male-centered culture that Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) is born in the late 1950s. Her entire life from the age of eleven, when she is married off to a much older man, is devoted to fighting for the rights of women and striking blows against a viciously prejudiced social structure.
After running away from her husband, Phoolan is captured and abused by bandits. Eventually, she joins a gang and it isn't long before her reputation as a Robin Hood like figure becomes known across India. She exacts revenge on those who betrayed her, becoming the chief instigator of the Behmai Massacre in the 1980s, where 24 men were killed. The authorities prove unable to capture Devi, and she remains on the loose until 1983, when a deal with the Indian government brings about her surrender.
The picture of human indignity and suffering painted by The Bandit Queen is on par with that of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. As the Nazis treated the Jews like animals, so too do the upper caste Indians regard those born into poverty and squalor. Compared to some of the indignities experienced by Devi, death would have been quick and merciful. Multiple rapes and public humiliation are only a few of the torments she must endure and each atrocity further hardens her heart. When it comes, Devi's revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.
The Bandit Queen is a tightly paced, powerfully written and well-acted, The Bandit Queen is a first rate adventure movie. Like Schindler's List, there is no political diatribe here. Actions and events are allowed to define the social climate. The film manages to grip the audience in a way that no preachy commentary ever will. Phoolan Devi, as striking portrayed by actress Seema Biswas, becomes real and it doesn't take long for us to feel her seething rage at the mountain of injustices rising above her.
It is uncomfortable to sympathize with someone who becomes so ruthless and uncomprising, but that it is the gut-wrenching path along which director Shekhar Kapur drags us. The Bandit Queen is not for the squeamish, or for those who prefer not to be challenged or unsettled by a motion picture. Because, whatever your feelings about the movie or its protagonist, The Bandit Queen will not leave you apathetic.