This review was carried as a guest post on A Potpourri of Vestiges, run by independent film critic Murtaza Ali.
The film is a horrific account of lower-caste rebel and the indomitable Phoolan Devi, who goes all out to defy the norms of a regressive society. The seed of rebellion is sown when she is married to a man over 20 years older. She is all 11. Life becomes a series of debacles then on, for Phoolan.
She is treated as an outcast, gets thrown out of her village, joins a gang of local goons in a nearby village, and eventually rises to power as the only woman bandit. The film recounts her life from the tender age of 11 till she surrenders as a bandit, 15 years after. The journey is painful, soul-stirring. It haunts you long after you've seen the film, leaving you with a sense of helplessness and remorse.
Seema Biswas makes a remarkable debut in Bollywood with this goose-bump inducing performance. She is intense, inimitable! Phoolan's eyes reflect anger, her ways vengeance. She retaliates to the atrocities committed on her but each time she's affronted and exploited. In Seema's 25-year career spanning 40 films, she is even today remembered as the Bandit Queen. That's the power of a performer!
Vikram Mallah (late, Nirmal Pandey, who started his career with B-grade films), playing gangster and Phoolan's lover, leaves a mark. I'm not sure if he received recognition for any role/film after this one. Bollywood's celebrated villain Govind Namdeo, is equally hateable as Thakur Shri Ram. This was one of the first films, in fact, that shot him to limelight in a negative avtar. Puttilal (Aditya Shrivastava), too is effective as Phoolan's husband. Saurabh Shukla is likeable for whatever little screen time he gets.
Shekhar Kapur's storytelling is gripping enough to keep you going for two hours. I was left asking for more towards the end, though. It was an underwhelming end to a roaring start. Or was it the over-emphasis on the rape-and-retribution theme? Possibly. Overall though, it was a brave attempt for a 3-film old director, executed commendably well.
Now, the film is loosely adapted from the "dictated prison diaries," taken down by London writer Mala Sen and compiled into her book, India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. The film received critical acclaim at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and at the 1995 New Directors New Films Festival in New York. But protagonist and real-life Phoolan Devi protested the release of the film, saying it "misrepresents" facts. The rape scenes and the Behmai village scene where she's forced to walk naked up to the well, include some of those. [Phoolan Devi, later released her version of the story in her autobiography titled The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend, with the help of international authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali].
Devi issued a lawsuit to prevent its release, although she, apparently, withdrew her objections after Channel 4 (the financiers of the film) paid her £40,000. Her protest was supported by a lot of activists, led by Arundhati Roy. Here's Roy's popular critique of the film The Great Indian Rape Trick. She slammed the film-makers, questioning the right to "re-stage the rape of a living woman without her permission." Writer Mala Sen later came out with her defense, as published in The Independent.
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