Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

BANDIT QUEEN ** (India, 1994) Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Written by Mala Sen. Photography, Ashok Mehta. Editing, Renu Saluja. Music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Cast: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai, Rajesh Vivek, Raghuvi Yadav, Govind Namdeo, Saurabh Shukla, Aditya Srivastava, Sunita Bhatt (as Young Phoolan). Co-produced by Channel Four. An Arrow release. In Hindi with subtitles. 119 min. Not rated.

On the face of it at least, and for filmgoers who are not truly familiar with Indian film, "Bandit Queen" is as far as can be from the West's impression of what Indian movies are, assuming of course that there are impressions, since the huge Indian production is "terra incognita" to the non-Indian public or at best something merely glimpsed.
For those who have some familiarity with Indian film, there is, on the one hand the huge output of pop-commercial, formulaic works, romances and adventures punctuated by songs and dances. On the other, a much smaller number of comparatively "elitist" works. Yet there was never merely "an Indian Cinema" but various "Indian Cinemas." These developed in 11 major languages and some 20 others, including dialects.

Bengali cinema, though in quantity about one-fourth of the dominating Hindi films, has been the most prestigious. It was Satyajit Ray's 1955 "Pather Panchali" and his other two works of the great "Apu Trilogy" ("Aparajito" and "The World of Apu") that put India on the international map. Ray was much influenced by the Frenchman Jean Renoir.

This is not too unlike the case of the once-famous Swedish cinema which fell into bad times, underwent a small renaissance in the 1940s under the influence of French poetic realism, and re-entered the world scene in the 1940s thanks to the works of Ingmar Bergman.

Ray practiced what strikes me as thoughtful, poetic neo-realism. He ushered in the New Wave of directors' cinema, much of it Bengali but also from many states, such as enlightened Kerala which had a policy of aid to quality films. Even then, this production, though deserving a wide Western exposure, is principally seen in film festivals and little known to outside India.

"Bandit Queen" does not fall into familiar categories. It is based on the story of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) who was the leader of a dacoit (brigand, outlaw, etc.) band for about five years. She became a major media figure as well as a pop-icon because she was low caste while her attacks were against upper caste people. In 1983, she surrendered to the authorities. She was charged with four dozen major crimes, including kidnapping and murder, notably the February 1981 raid on the town of Behmai where between 22 and 30 (figures vary) people were massacred. Phoolan was released after 8, 11 or 12 years in prison (figures vary) and now is either in politics or planning to be.

"Bandit Queen" purports to be a filmization of Phoolan's biography as written by Mala Sen whose book was based on information gathered from co-prisoners of Phoolan, who in turn related what Phoolan had told them. Historiography needs more than that, but let it pass...

In the movie, Phoolan is introduced as short, homely, foul-mouthed, lower caste 11-year old who is sold as a wife to a higher caste "old" (make it early 20s). His mother is getting old and needs a housekeeper-slave. He pays with a rusty bicycle and a skeletal cow. This is already a form of rape.

At her husband's place Phoolan is discriminated against for her caste and ill-treated. Immediately after giving her a beating, the husband, while saying that she "is still not ripe" rapes her. The rape motif seems to be Ariadne's thread in the entire story.

Phoolan runs away to her family. Several years later the grown-up woman also escapes from her village where the higher caste headman's son tried to rape her, beat her up and lied to the village elders. One thing leading to another, she comes in contact with the dacoits who first mock her then accept her. She becomes the leader's mistress, her status grows, eventually she is chief.

Actor-director Kapur has taken many liberties (some of which he defends on artistic grounds) with the life of Phoolan, including a marriage which was very different in real life. Phoolan, now married to an upper caste man, brought suit against Kapur and tried to have the film boycotted by festivals. She settled for a generous (for India) sum.

No doubt, much of the film deals with acute discrimination and ill-treatment of lower castes and of women in general. But much of that gets vaporized by the movie's artiness, effective at first, then becoming artificial. While it skips songs and dances "Bandit Queen " seems to slow down past the early parts and to get lost in looseness and vagueness.

The action, relationships, the passage of time, the geography of the place, the situations and the characters' purposes are often unclear, confused and confusing. You may wonder about the double-faced high caste fellow who is both in with the bandits and plans their destruction. Or, later, about Baba Mustaquim who is apparently a local Godfather to whom the gang goes for approval of plans.

The rapes continue. Phoolan is stripped naked in public. Violence escalates. But the movie does not master the building of tension or suspense. It lacks tightness and selectivity. Nor does the often fine photography avoid excesses, as when some of the agitation at the Behmai Massacre is shot in dreamy, washed out, slow motion. Or when Phoolan in a red bandana recalls Geronimo. You'd think that the director had seen too much Sam Peckinpah but was unable to emulate him.

Had the film been more neatly made, even as a kind of mythological Joan of Arc or Robin Hood story -- or generally on discrimination and abuses of human rights--it would have been more convincing. As it is, though Phoolan is not really romanticized, we still don't know who she is, what motivates her, what she thinks, what makes her tick. The movie is promising at the start and remains quite watchable, but it affects you far less than the better, often quiet and intimate, politically and sociologically committed works of the Indian New Wave.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel