• U.S.


2 minute read
Richard Corliss

Rape victim. Marauder. Murderer. Superstar! Phoolan Devi, an outcast Hindu woman, became a folk hero as head of a band of outlaws preying on India’s corrupt alite. Part Joan of Arc, part Ma Barker, on Feb. 14, 1981, she staged her own St. Valentine’s Day massacre, leading the slaughter of 22 villagers she suspected of aiding her enemies. Yet her surrender, in 1983, was on her own terms, to the cheers of 10,000 supporters. On her release from prison last year, three political parties asked her to run for office.

Bandit Queen, written by Mala Sen and directed by Shekhar Kapur, is a vibrant, instructive document with a fierce star performance by Seema Biswas. The film has an Indian heart but a Hollywood pulse; it moves with the fevered outrage of an Oliver Stone melodram–Natural Born Killers meets Heaven and Earth. Most Indian movies are either humid musical fables or languid art films in the Satyajit Ray mold. Bandit Queen is neither. It is an assaultive experience, blistering with ripe obscenities, the frontal nudity of its star and three stark scenes in which Phoolan is raped–enough to have the film banned 10 times over in a country where a bare shoulder can send the censors frothing.

Bandit Queen was indeed banned. But Kapur believes that the censors, who demanded 25 significant cuts, have another agenda: “To them the film’s most offensive aspect is its depiction of the caste system. To expose this hierarchy of inequality is the worst sin I’ve committed.”

Devi, who sued to stop a Toronto Film Festival screening of Bandit Queen, has since settled with the producers and, says Kapur, “now stands by the film.” But the Indian government would not grant her a passport to attend the U.S. premiere. American filmgoers can see an exciting movie that brings Devi’s story to life with passion but without passing judgment. In India, though, a venal game is being played: the upper-class guardians of public morality who once defamed this low-caste rebel are now ensuring that Bandit Queen remains an untouchable.

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