In terms of the politics of the movie, I have two thoughts. First, I am not Indian...and the whole time I thought to myself, "This happens everywhere." What was hardest for me to understand was how quietly villagers stood and watched the abuse. Second, I agree with the movie review that the larger, national politics were swept aside. The ending scene was of Poolan "surrendering", to cheers of low-caste crowds. This was an amazing scene to me...that a "criminal" could make a surrender under such ceremonial decoration. I wanted to know more about that, and also I wanted to know why the bandits were as entrenched in caste issues as the villages.
I avoid violent movies almost entirely. _Bandit Queen_ used violence appropriately, I thought, because all of the violence was crucial to the unfolding of the story, and because every death was marked as significant to someone. The inclusion of widows mourning for 20 funeral fires was a good example: each man who died was part of a grieving family.
My problem with violence in films, and depiction of women under severe oppression is this: the day after I saw the film I found that it was difficult to take a walk through the park where I go regularly. Every man on the trail became a potential rapist. Though _Bandit Queen_ is a story about how a woman fought back, the truth is that for all the times that Poolan Devi was tough and ruthless in extracting her revenge, she had also been overpowered, helpless to defend herself, and her abuse was witnessed, EVERYTIME, by caste-members, family, women, villagers who could or would do nothing to help her. The story seems to say that abuse of women is usual, and only an extraordinary woman can fight back. There are no sources of strength, justice, protection for the ordinary women. For this reason, I wonder how we can tell the story of abuse and sexual harrassment of women without increasing our fear and sense of helplessness, making it more likely that we will all hide in our houses and be quiet when witnessing the abuse of another.
Kapur starts off the movie with the words "This is a true story" and then proceeds to create his own interpretation of what he thinks Phoolan Devi was like and takes total liberties with the sequence of events that happened to the real Phoolan. Viewed through his eyes, I saw her an emotional, animalistic person who operated on instinct and had revenge as her primary motive for existence. At times I expected her to start grunting rather than talk. She displayed no intelligence and if she had any she hid it very well. I couldn't figure out on what basis did the male dacoits join under her leadership after Vikram Mallah (the gang leader and her lover was killed). I would think that being a dacoit is no picnic and one would wish for an intelligent and cunning leader.
The only message the movie had was the mindless violence perpetrated by the upper castes on the lower castes and especially on the lower caste women and the cruelty and inhumanity of marrying off eleven-year olds to 35-year men. I'm not saying this is not true in India but in the instance of Phoolan Devi, despite truly horrendous things happening to her she was able to empower herself. Maybe Kapur couldn't handle the thought of a woman not only managing to save her sanity after numerous gang rapes, beatings, humiliations, and every possible adversity but to rise above them, lead a gang of hardened dacoits in the notorious Chambal Valley after the death of her lover, and then negotiate a quite a surrender agreement with the police. Maybe it was safer for him to think that women who can survive such ordeals do so purely on a basic animalistic survival instinct. (If you have ever heard her in TV interviews, she comes across as an intelligent and savvy woman.)
I also found the end of the film quite implausible. Kapur shows Phoolan having a hysterical breakdown after all her gang members except one are killed and she is on the run with no ammo or supplies (all of this is untrue by the way) but she manages to arrange a pretty extensive list of surrender terms. Kapur couldn't resist the Spielberg "the end of the movie should be as action packed, nerve racking, and exciting as possible even if it is untrue and ruins the previous 2 hours of the film" phenomenon (e.g. Schindler's List).
This sounds nitpicky (and probably is) but it brings to my mind the phenomenon of exoticizing the mysterious East/Orient. Phoolan Devi's name is translated as the Goddess of Flowers to further the exotic myth of a female bandit in mysterious, strange, fabulous India. Phoolan does mean flowers and devi is goddess. So where's the nit? Well, the use of Devi after a female name in this instance is the same as using as Bai in Maharashtra, Kumari in UP (?), Kaur among Sikh women, and Singh among the Sikh men. It is a means of identity not to be translated literally. I could just see Amrit Singh being translated as Lion of the nectar of the gods. Sounds a bit ridiculous doesn't it.
You were wondering about the hoopla surrounding the surender of a "criminal" like Phoolan Devi. The Chambal Valley (extending through Madhya Pradesh and Utter Pradesh) has had a long tradition of dacoity and a number of these dacoits turned to dacoity because of feuds, oppression, or some sort of injustice. A number of them were from the lower, oppressed castes and frequently distributed their spoils among the poor villagers who gave them shelter and food. Also, many of them directed vendettas against specific segments of society and of course, in many instances, like Phoolan Devi, the upper castes. So to a lot of the poor and lower caste people, the bandits were heroes.
If you can get hold of Mala Sen's "Bandit Queen"--the book on Phoolan's life, I think most of your questions will be answered. The book is excellent and pretty well written. In fact I found it hard to read about the rapes and the other graphic details. You will be interested to know that Phoolan Devi never referred directly to her rapes using the word "balatkar" (rape). She referred to it as "mazak" literally tranlated as joke. She says of her first gang rape, when her uncle got her arrested and taken to the local police station, "police ne bahout mazak kiya" (the police had a lot of fun with me).
The book also discusses some of the media coverage of Phoolan Devi and what happened to her family members afterwards. I believe from what I've read about the film, it differs from the book. Since I haven't seen the movie I don't know if it's enough to get my goat (one of my pet peeves). Phoolan's problems started when her father's younger brother took over their family field and she constantly tangled with the uncle trying to get the field back. The uncle also incited the villagers against her and teamed up with the local, upper caste landlords against her.
y the way, there's a book on Phoolan Devi going around written by some Frenchwoman--avoid this book like the plague. It's a badly written, fictionalized account (she never met Phoolan Devi or talked to anyone who knew her) of Phoolan Devi's life and falls into the category of heaving-bosoms-and-cheap-grocery-store romances. --
-- Sonya Pelia
-- Mona Oommen
-- Manisha Ranade
Film description: Based upon the life of Phoolan Devi, who led a gang of dacoits in the Chambal Valley.