Bandit Queen (India, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Controversy is swirling around Bandit Queen, likely to be one of 1995's most discussed features. Supposedly based on the real-life experiences of a modern Indian folk hero named Phoolan Devi, the authenticity of the film's script is now under attack by none other than the subject herself. Devi has not only disavowed her autobiography, but has filed a lawsuit to keep Bandit Queen from being released in Indian theaters. At this point, there is enough confusion surrounding the factual accuracy of the movie that its claim to be "a true story" should be accepted with reservations. Nevertheless, regardless of its historical veracity, 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 this 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 by Phoolan Devi's father: "A daughter is always a burden..." It is into this male-centered culture that Devi is born in the late 1950s. Her entire life from the age of eleven, when she is married 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, Devi 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 1980's Behmai Massacre, where 24 men are 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 Bandit Queen is on par with that of 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.

Making the film was an undeniable challenge for director Kapur, an upper-caste Hindu who, along with writer Mala Sen, based as much of Bandit Queen on interpretations of what Devi didn't say in her diaries as on what she did say. There is also no doubt that the movie will have a vastly different impact in its country of origin than in the West, where we bring a foreign cultural perspective to a viewing. But there's no question that this is the sort of picture capable of causing waves of world wide contention, regardless of how true or untrue particular elements are. Fiction can often have as much impact as fact, especially if it is well-grounded in reality.

Tightly-paced, powerfully-written, and well-acted, 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. Devi, as strikingly 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 uncompromising, but that is the gut-wrenching path along which director Kapur drags us. 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, Bandit Queen will not leave you apathetic.

Bandit Queen (India, 1995)

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai, Rajesh Vivek, Raghuvir Yadav, Govind Namdeo
Screenplay: Mala Sen
Cinematography: Ashok Mehta
Music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
U.S. Distributor: Arrow Releasing
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1995-06-09
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Hindi
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: