Millennials Review Classics: ‘Bandit Queen’ Doesn’t Flinch, We Do
(Khemta Jose, 28, watched Bandit Queen (1996) for the first time. Read her review here.)
A child-rape. An attempted rape. A gangrape by police officers. A gangrape by villagers. You lose track of how many times Phoolan Devi has been raped in Bandit Queen – it's an excruciating watch.
As women, we already know. We know it happens, we know how often it happens, we know when it happens. "Enough. Stop torturing us with its depiction over and over." But maybe this depiction has value for the uninitiated. So is it rank sensationalism, or an unfiltered look at the slavery millions of Indian women live under, that many men refuse to see? There's no clear answer. The real Phoolan Devi believes it is the former.
Unbowed from Beginning to End
The little girl Phoolan is spunky and spits words like bullets from the very first time you meet her. The film's opening line is the little Phoolan, bubbling with defiance:
Born to a poor lower-caste family, she is bartered off at age 11 to a pedophile who buys her in exchange for a cow and a bicycle as a replacement for his ageing mother; a house slave, except he gets to have sex with this one, how wonderful for him. The tiny Phoolan is made to do hard labour, enduring casteism and bullying from the villagers... until night comes, and her husband (who is pretty much the Everyman of much of India) awakens her to the unbearable reality of life as a poor, lower-caste girl – especially a girl who swears like nobody's business and refuses to take sh*t from anyone.
Unable to tolerate this new life, the indomitable Phoolan runs away from her rapist-by-law and goes home – where she is unwelcome. Defiant, you can only see a hint of the pain and betrayal under her anger when her parents tell her to go back because she has no place in her own home. She stays a while, but things come to a head again when an upper-caste Thakur attempts to rape her. She fights back, and is brought in front of the sarpanch, the rapist's father. There, she is publicly humiliated in a way that echoes in every rape trial across the world – her character, motives and integrity questioned, and judged lacking as the entire village sides with the rapist. She is then banished for being 'trouble' to the village boys, who snicker throughout the 'trial', and goes to live with her cousin Kailash.
When she's with Kailash, despite the hardship she has endured, she is cheeky and fun-loving, play-fighting and laughing, teasing her cousin mercilessly and getting teased in return. But it doesn't last – soon, his wife asks her to move out, and she has nowhere to go but back ‘home’. There, she is arrested for returning despite her exile, and is gangraped in a cell by two policemen who are perfectly confident in their impunity. The Thakurs pay Rs 25,000 as her bail money, but sell her to Babu Gujjar's dacoit gang. Her father, despite his unfaltering sexism, tries to shelter her, but when her brother's life is threatened, she gives herself up. She must have known what that meant for her.
Babu Gujjar, like every other man in this movie, rapes her as he wishes, multiple times. Eventually, a member of the gang, Vikram Mallah Mastana, who is becoming increasingly incensed by her victimisation, kills Gujjar and takes over the gang with Phoolan. But Gujjar dies with a simple gunshot to the head as he's raping her... it seems too swift an end.
Their new gang pulls off daring raids, always careful not to molest women or children, and to target only the rich – as she is raiding, she shouts, "If any man marries a little girl, I'll kill him!" Phoolan is an Indian Robin Hood of sorts, if herself and her gang count as 'the poor'.
At one point, after Vikram is betrayed by an upper-caste Thakur – Shri Ram – and shot, the pair flee to a doctor, who they cannot pay... and so Phoolan takes Vikram back to her village. Her family tells her it is only proper she go back to her husband. Seething, she does, and it doesn't end well for Puttilal the Pedophile. She parades him around his village on the back of a donkey, then lashes him to a post and beats him (ostensibly) to death in a state of high agitation – one can understand the real Phoolan's objection to the state of unrestrained emotion she is portrayed in if it isn't accurate. It ventures into the hysterical, which is understandable, but again... rank sensationalism, or an attempt to throw light on the level of trauma caused by a lifetime of oppression? The jury is still out.
The revenge she extracts is epically satisfying. As she talks to Vikram about Puttilal later, she says, "My whole body aches... but I feel at peace, like after a pilgrimage." In a country (and world), where female anger and vengeance is muted and suppressed, this scene feels like justice. Of course, no good thing can last for long. Vikram is finally shot and killed by Shri Ram, who is resentful of a woman in a position of power, particularly a woman who would not submit to his revolting advances. She is captured, taken to a remote village, and gangraped by upwards of 10 men. The graphic depiction seems gratuitous, but is again the depressing reality. Asked about the portrayal of her rape in the film, the real Phoolan tells The Atlantic:
You can call it rape in your fancy language. Do you have any idea what it’s like to live in a village in India? What you call rape, that kind of thing happens to poor women in the villages every day. It is assumed that the daughters of the poor are for the use of the rich. They assume that we’re their property. In the villages the poor have no toilets, so we must go to the fields, and the moment we arrive, the rich lay us there; we can’t cut the grass or tend to our crops without being accosted by them. We are the property of the rich.
Paraded naked in public and released after two weeks of relentless abuse, she goes to Man Singh, a friend of Vikram, to set about avenging herself again. She is given control of a new gang by a dacoit leader, and gets wind that Shri Ram and his men are going to be attending a wedding at a village. She makes a beeline straight there, and lays seige. She rounds up all the Thakur men and demands to know where Shri Ram is. Nobody squeaks. She finds two men who raped her, and kills them. Consumed by rage at their unwillingness to divulge Shri Ram's whereabouts, and in an act that makes her infamous, she beats and shoots 22 of the Thakurs dead, bringing the state police down on her and eventually leading to her surrender.
Watching the movie, it becomes apparent that half the country's population is living in a state of terror: terror of being raped, gangraped, beaten, tortured, sold. Terror that keeps them docile, unwilling and unable to defend their sisters. The terrorists are their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
There's no comfort in parents or siblings, as there must have been for the black slaves of America. There's no escape in friends, as the self-loathing misogyny is made to take root in every young girl's mind from birth. The only comparable level of brainwashing that exists today is in North Korea... and even that has existed for a shorter time than the slavery of women. We know all the facts, but seeing it in its full glory on screen really hammers home the epiphany.
The Real Phoolan Devi, Goddess of Flowers, the Beautiful Bandit
The diminutive, formidable bandit, after surrendering to the UP state police, went on to become a successful and popular Member of Parliament, until she was assassinated in revenge for her slaughter of the 22 Thakurs. Unbelievably, her Wikipedia page offers a glimpse into the kind of sexism that pushed her to become a dacoit. Hint: It's still alive and kicking.
An unsuccessful marriage is rather a rosy way to describe marital rape. Or maybe not, since rape within a marriage is no crime in this country.
This bit talks about the real Phoolan Devi’s life, and the land dispute between her and her cousin, Maya Din (that isn’t touched upon in the movie):
And who was labouring in the home and that very common kitchen? Who brought the water? Who cooked the meals? Who birthed and raised the children? But of course, women's labour is out of the kindness of their hearts, needing no pay or recognition, able to be swept aside in favour of "actual" labour in the fields – what a happy coincidence for men.
Here we see unwarranted casting of doubt on a woman who has been raped multiple times, no source attributed. She is also accused of being ‘foul-mouthed... for a woman’ repeatedly, as though that is any crime at all.
There is open contempt for the idea that patriarchy is largely to blame for her oppression in this telling quote.
This film, if nothing else, is a model for women that is otherwise sorely lacking: Angry, righteous, lion-hearted. With stalking, rapes, gangrapes, and sexual torture making headlines daily, maybe this is the devi that Indian society is asking for.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 26 July 2017. It is being republished to mark Shekhar Kapur’s birthday.)