But I'm afraid I simply cannot see another point of view on this whole business.
The question is not whether Bandit Queen is a good film or a bad film.
The question is should it exist at all?
If it were a work of fiction, if the film-makers had taken the risk that every fiction writer takes, and told a story, then we could begin to discuss the film. Its artistic merit, its performances, its editing, the conviction behind its social comment...
If this had been the case, I, as the writer of films that have been infinitely less successful, would not have commented.
The trouble is that Bandit Queen claims nothing less than "Truth". The film-makers have insured themselves against accusations of incompetence, exaggeration, even ignorance, by using a living human being.
Unfortunately, to protect themselves from these (comparatively) small risks, they had to take one big one. The dice were loaded in their favour. It nearly paid off . But then, the wholly unanticipated happened. Phoolan Devi spoilt everything by being released from prison on bail. And now, before our eyes, in delicious slow-motion, the house of cards is collapsing.
As it folds softly to the floor, it poses the Big Questions. Of Truth. Of Justice. Of Liberty.
A man who read my essay of last week, came up to me and said
"She's scum. Why are you getting involved with her?"
I'm not sure I know how one defines scum. But for the sake of the argument, let's assume that she is.
Phoolan Devi (Scum. ) - like a degree from an unknown University.
Does Scum have Civil Rights?
It took a Salman Rushdie to make the world discuss the Freedom of Expression. Not an Enid Blyton. And so, to discuss an individual's right to Justice, it takes a Phoolan Devi. Not the Pope.
In yesterday's papers, the Chairman of the Censor Board
defended the delay in clearing some films
on Rajiv Gandhi. "The trouble with political films", he said,
"is that they are about real people.
They must be absolutely true."
In the eyes of the Law, are Rajiv Gandhi and Phoolan Devi equally real?
Or is one a little more real that the other?
As we watch the drama unfold in the press, one thing has become absolutely clear. The most elusive, the most enigmatic, the most intangible character of all, is the "Truth". She hardly appears. She has no lines. Perhaps it's safe to assume that the play isn't about her at all. If so, then what are we left with?
Versions of the story. Versions of the woman herself.
We have the version of her in the film: Poor Phoolan. Raped and
re-raped and re-re-raped until she takes to crime and guns down
twenty-two Thakur Rapists. (Forgive her, the film says to
us ) We have the version of her painted by the producers
now that she's protested about their film : Manipulative,
cunning, trying to hit them for more money. (Look at
the greedy bitch!) We have the version of her that
appears in the papers: Ex-jailbird. Flirting with politics. Trying
to adjust to married life, manipulated by her husband and her
And these are only some of them.
We have versions of her story.
Mala Sen's book that claims to be based on Phoolan's "writings".
This film that claims to be based on Mala Sen's book.
And these are only some of them.
As always, when we cannot agree, we must turn to Law. Study
contracts. Examine promises.
What does Phoolan's contract say? Or, more accurately, what do
Phoolan's contracts say?
They say quite simply, all three of them, that the film was to be based on Phoolan's writings, i.e. The film was to be Phoolan Devi's version of her story.
Not Mala Sen's version. Not Shekhar Kapur's version. Not your or my version. Not even the "True" version (if such a thing exists), but Phoolan's version.
You see, it turns out that Mala Sen's book was published long after the first contract with Phoolan was signed.
The first agreement for the purchase of the rights to Phoolan's version was with Jalal Agha's company called ANANCY FILMS. It was signed in 1988. The contract clearly states (under-lined right across the top) that it was to be a Documentary film "relating to Indian banditry and your role therein." Having made this clear, the contract refers to it as "the Film"
Another agreement was signed in 1989 informing Phoolan that the rights to her "writings" now belonged to Channel Four.
The third letter was issued in 1992 bv B V Videographics, S.S. Bedi's company, affirming the agreement between Phoolan Devi and Channel Four, and informing her that they were the latest in the line of succession to the rights of her story.
The contracts, smuggled in and out of prison by Phoolan's family in tiffin carriers, are vague and cursory. Couched in this vagueness there is a sort of disdain. Of the educated for the illiterate. Of the rich for the poor. Of the free for the incarcerated. It's like the attitude of a memsahib getting her ayah to undertake to vacate the servants' quarter in the event that she's sacked. Essentially, Phoolan Devi seems to have given Chalillel Four the rights to film her version of the story of her life. In return for the sum of a little over five thousand pounds. Less than one percent of the six hundred and fifty thousand pound budget of the film. (What was that about her being greedy?)
Anyway Let us assume that it all started out in god faith. That
they intended to make a
Documentary Film. Somewhere along the way it became a Feature
film. They took care of that in the small print. Okay.
In the last clause of the agreement(s), they gave themselves the right to "cut, alter and adapt the writings and use alone or with other material and/or accompanied by editorial comment."
Herein (they believe) lies their salvation.
What did they mean by this clause? What did they intend when they included this in the contract?
To me, as a writer of films, it seems fair enough. You must have the right to cut, alter and adapt your source material. Of course you must. Unless you want to make a film that is exactly as long as the life of your subject.
But does "cut, alter, and adapt" include Distort and Falsify?
The Producers' (by now public, and written) refusal to show Phoolan the original version of the film (the one that has been seen and reviewed and is now on its World Tour) suggests that they know they have done her a terrible injustice. But they say they are not worried because they have a "fool-proof" (India Today, August 21st) contract with her. What does this imply? That they deliberately set out cheat and mislead her? That they conned an illiterate woman into signing away her rights? I don't know. I'm asking.
Surely the fact that they were dealing with an illiterate woman
only increases their obligation to her?
Surely it was up to them, to check and counter-check the facts with her? To read her the script, to fine-tune the details, to show her the rough-cut before the film was shown to the rest of the world?
Instead what do they do? They never meet her once. Not even to sign the contracts . They re-invent her life. Her loves. Her rapes. They implicate her in the murder of twenty-two men that she denies having committed.
Then they try to slither out of showing her the film!
"Cut, alter and adapt"? -- is that what it's called?
Could it be that the film's success, and the Producers' (and Director's) blatant exploitation of this person, both have to do with the same thing? That she's a woman, that she's poor, and illiterate, and has (they assume) no court of appeal? Which is why she became a bandit in the first place? What they haven't got yet. The point that they seem to keep on missing (in the film, and otherwise), is that she's no victim. She's a fighter. Unfortunately, this time she's on their territory. Not hers.
After I saw the film, which was about three weeks ago, I have
met Phoolan several times.
Initially, I did not speak of the film to her, because I believed that it would have been wrong of me to influence her opinion. The burden of my song so far, has been Show her the film. I only supported her demand that she had a right, a legal right to see the film that claims to be the true story of her life.
My opinion of the film has nothing to do with her opinion.
Mine doesn't matter.
More than anyone else's.
Two days ago, on the 1st of September, when the Producer
replied to Phoolan's legal notice, making
it absolutely clear that he would not show her the
original, international version of the film, (the
version that has been written about, and so glowingly
reviewed), I sat with her and told the
sequence of events, scene by scene.
The discrepancies, the departures, the outright fabrications are frightening. I wrote about some of them last week. I didn't know then just how bad it really was.
Phoolan didn't write any prison diaries. She couldn't. She narrated
them to someone who was with her in jail.
The writings were smuggled out and given to
Mala Sen. Mala Sen pieced them
together, and wrote first a script, then a book. The book presents
several versions of the story.
Including Phoolan's. The film doesn't, Mala Sen's book, and
Bandit Queen the film differ
radically, not just in fact, but in spirit. I believe that her
film script was altered by the makers of the film.
Substantially altered. It departs from the book as well as from Phoolan's version of her story.
Since I have not seen Phoolan's diaries, I can only read the extracts published in Mala Sen's book and assume that they are accurate. Mala Sen quotes her: "...what I am writing is read by many, and written by those I do not know so well..." What a terrible position to be in! What easy meat for jackals!
According to Mala Sen, Phoolan Devi was reluctant to even discuss rape:
"There are various versions of what happened to Phoolan Devi after Vikram Mallah's death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to speak of her bezathi (dishonour) as she put it, at the hands on the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said "Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki". I was not surprised at her reticence to elaborate. First of all, because we had an audience, including members of her family, other prisoners and their relatives. Secondly because we live in societies where a woman who is abused sexually ends up feeling deeply humiliated, knowing that many will think that it was her fault, or partly her fault. That she provoked the situation in the first place. Phoolan Devi, like many other women all over the world, feels she will only add to her own shame if she speaks of this experience."
Does this sound like a man who would have agreed to have her humiliation re-created for the world to watch? Does this sound like the book that a film replete with rape could be based on? Every time Mala Sen quotes Phoolan as saying " un logo ne mujhse bahut mazaak ki the Director of the film has assumed that she meant that she was raped. "How else can a woman be expected to express the shame heaped on her...asks Kapur." (August 31st , India Today) And in the film he does not shy away from dwelling on details. Oh no. That's woman stuff. When Phoolan won't provide him with the details, he goes ahead and uses the wholly vicarious account of some American journalist from "Esquire ". The man writes with skill and feeling. Almost as though he was there. (I've quoted from this at length in The Great Indian Rape-Trick I)
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that whenever Phoolan says "mujhse mazaak ki" she does in fact mean that she was raped. Do they have the right to show it? In all it's explicit detail? This raises the question of an Individual's Right to Privacy. In Phoolan Devi's case, not just Privacy, Sexual Privacy. And not just infringement. Outright assault.
In the rape scenes in the film, (Phoolan Devi is shown being raped
by her husband, raped by Babu
Gujjar, raped by the police and gang-raped bv the Thakurs of
Behmai), her humiliation and
degradation could not possibly, be more explicit.
While I watched this, I remember feeling that using the identity of a living woman, re-creating her degradation and humiliation for public consumption, was totally unacceptable to me. Doing it without her consent, without her specific, written repeated, whole-hearted, unambiguous, consent, is monstrous. I cannot believe that it has happened. I cannot believe that it is being condoned.
I cannot believe that it is not a criminal offense.
If it were a fictional film, where rape was being examined
as an issue, if it were a fictional
character that was being raped, it would be an entirely
different issue. I would be glad to enter into
an argument about whether showing the rape was necessary,
whether or not it was "exploitative".
The Accused - a film that challenges accepted norms about what constitutes rape and what doesn't, hardly shows the act of rape at all!
Bandit Queen on the other hand, has nothing intelligent to say about the subject beyond the fact that Rape is degrading and humiliating. Dwelling on the Degradation and the Humiliation is absolutely essential for the commercial success of the film. Without it, there would be no film. The intensity of these emotions is increased to fever-pitch because we're told - She's real . This happened.
And faithfully, our critics go home and write about it. Praise it to the skies.
Who are we to assess a living woman's rape? Who are we to decide how well done it was? How Brutal? How Chilling? How true-to-life?
Who the hell are we?
Had I been raped, perhaps I would devote my every waking hour to call for stiffer legislation, harsher punishment for rapists. Perhaps I'd take lessons from Lorena Bobbitt. What I would never ever do, and I don't imagine that anyone else has (even those who loved the film so much) would either -- is to agree to have it re-created as entertainment cloaked in the guise of concern, for an audience that was going to pay to watch. It would be like being raped all over again. And ironically, the more skillful the Director, the greater would be my shame and humiliation.
I am disgusted that I was invited to Siri Fort to watch Phoolan
Devi being raped - without her permission. Had I known that she had
not seen the film, I would never have gone. I know that there
are video tapes of Bandit Queen doing the rounds in Delhi drawing
rooms. If any of you who reads this essay has a tape - Please Do
the right thing. Show it to Phoolan Devi (since the Producers
won't). Ask her whether she minds your watching or not.
Given all this, to call Phoolan Devi's protests and demands to see the film " Tantrums" (Amita Malik, 'Sunday', 28th August ) and "Grumbling" (Sunday Observer, 21st August  is so small-minded, so blinkered that it's unbelievable. And unforgiveable.
I've tried so hard to understand how it could possibly
be that so many intelligent people have not
seen through this charade. I can only think, that to them a
"True Story' is just another kind of
story. That "Truth" is merely a more exciting form of
They don't believe that Phoolan Devi is real. That she actually exists. That she has feelings. Opinions. A mind. A Past. A father that she loved ( who didn't sell her for a second-hand bicycle). Her life, or what they know of it, is so implausible, so farfetched. So unlike what Life means to them. It has very little to do with what they associate with being "human".
They cannot put themselves in her shoes - and think what they'd feel if the film had done to them what it has done to her.
The more "touched" among them don't denigrate her. They exalt her with their pity. From 'Woman' to 'Womanhood'.
"Indeed the strength of the film is that it goes much beyond Phoolan Devi, who is of course the original peg..." (Amita Malik, 'Sunday', August 28th)
"Kapur's film is not the story of one extraordinary woman: it is a manifesto about Indian womanhood." (Alexander Walker, Evening News)
When a woman becomes Womanhood, she ceases to be real.
I don't need to argue this any further, because my work has been done for me Every time they open their mouths - the Producer, the Director and even the Actress of this incredible film - every time they open their mouths, they damn themselves.
"The West has lapped up the film... it has been very tightly edited and the essence of child abuse and caste-discrimination comes out very strongly. Phoolan is just a vehicle for the expression of these..."
- (S.S. Bedi, 'Sunday', August 28th )
"The film was a means of finding deeper meaning in the world. It was a means of discovering myself. It helped me discover new aspects of myself."
- (Shekhar Kapur, the Director, 'Sunday' August 28th )
"When I was selected for the role, I read every report on Phoolan and looked at her picture for hours on end to understand her. When I was done with all this, I realised that I had formed an image of her, and worked out why she had reacted the way she did. After this I did not want to meet her because I did not want any contradictions to the image I had formed of her."
- (Seema Biswas, the Actress, 'Sunday', August 28th )
In their quest for Classic Cinema, they've stripped a human being of her Rights. Her Dignity. Her Privacy. Her Freedom. And perhaps, as I will argue later, of her Right to Life itself.
And so we move from Rape to Murder.
Phoolan Devi denies having murdered twenty-two Thakurs at Behmai. She has denied it in her statement to the Police.She has denied it in her "writings". She has denied it to Mala Sen.
Bandit Queen shows her present and responsible for the massacre of twenty-two Thakurs at Behmai.
What does this mean?
Essentially I did not kill these twenty-two men.
Cut, Alter and Adapt ?
Does Bandit Queen the film constitute an Interference with the Administration of Justice? It certainly does.
This February, after eleven years in prison, Phoolan Devi was released on bail. Two days after her release, the widows of Behmai filed an appeal against Mulayam Singh Yadav's plans to drop the charges against Phoolan Devi for the massacre of their husbands. Phoolan's trial is still pending in Indian Courts. If she's found guilty, she could be hanged.
Very few know what really happened in Behmai on that cold February night. There was gun-fire. There were twenty-two corpses. Those are the facts.
Was Phoolan Devi there? Did she kill those men? Two of the men
who were shot but didn't die have said she wasn't there. Other
eye-witnesses say that she was. There is plenty of room for doubt
Certainly there is that.
All we have for sure, is a Definite Maybe.
Faced with this dilemma, with this great big hole in their
story-line, (Rape n' Retribution) - what
does our 'Greatest Indian Film Ever Made' do?
It haggles with the ''Truth'' like a petty shop-keeper
The case against Phoolan was sub-judice and so we took her statements about the Behmai massacre where she said she had shot a few people. (?) But in the film we have not shown her killing anybody as we did not want it to affect her case."
- (S.S. Bedi, 'Sunday', August 28th )"
But what if she didin fact kill those men? Is that not an
terrible injustice to the murdered men and their families?
Never mind the fact that according to the law, showing Phoolan Devi present, supervising and responsible for the massacre, whether or not she actually pulled the trigger, does not make her any less culpable.
So, in effect, the result of their little arrangement with the "Truth", is that they've managed something quite remarkable They've got it wrong both ways. They've done both sides an injustice.
Apart from this, in other, more subtle ways, the Interference in the Administration of Justice has already begun.
Phoolan Devi knows that the people who made the film have a
lot at stake. She also knows that
they have the Media supporting them. She knows that they are
powerful, influential people.
From where she comes from, they look as though they own the
world They fly around it all the time.
And who is she? What has she got to say for herself?
That she's India's best-known bandit?
She's not even a free woman. She's a prisoner, out on bail. She
is terrified. She feels cornered. She cannot be expected to be
coherent in her protest.
She believes that all it would take would be a nudge here, a wink there, and she could land right back in jail. Perhaps her fears are unfounded. But as far as she's concerned, they could.
So what are her options? She's caught between a rock and
a hard place. Should she accept this
public re-enactment of her rape, her humiliation, her by now
immortal walk to the well? Should
she leave uncontested the accusation that she did indeed
kill twenty-two men?
What could she expect in return?
A little bit of Liberty?
Somewhat shaky, somewhat dangerous, somewhat temporary?
When Bandit Queen is released in India the people who see it
will believe that it is the Truth. It
will he seen by people in cities and villages. By lawyers, by
judges, by journalists, by Phoolan
Devi's family, by the relatives of the men who were murdered
in Behmai. By people who's vision
and judgement will directly affect Phoolan Devi's life.
It will influence Courts of Law. It could provoke retribution from the Thakur community which has every right to be outraged at the apparent condoning of this massacre. And they, judging by the yard-stick of this film, would be entirely justified were they to take the law into their own. hands
Perhaps not here, in the suburbs of Delhi. But away from here. Where these things are real and end in death.
Bandit Queen the film, seriously jeopardises Phoolan Devi's
life. It passes judgements that ought
to be passed in Courts of Law. Not in Cinema Halls.
The threads that connect Truth to Half-Truths to Lies could very quickly tighten into a noose around Phoolan Devi's neck. Or a bullet through her head. Or a knife in her back.
While We-the-Audience peep saucer-eyed out of our little lives. Not remotely aware of the fact that our superficial sympathy, our ignorance of the facts and our intellectual sloth -- could grease her way to the gallows.
We makes me sick.
|September 3rd, '94.|
More about Arundhati Roy
More about Phoolan Devi
Sawnet reviews of Bandit Queen
Sawnet, the South Asian Women's NETwork