Entertainment

True-Life ‘Bandit Queen’ Is Tough To Watch

Life is hard, and then you die.

In the case of Phoolan Devi, life is really hard, and then you become a cultural icon.

That, at least, appears to be the main point of “The Bandit Queen,” a film from India directed by Shekhar Kapur from a script by Mala Sen.

Phoolan Devi is a real person, the former leader of a bandit gang once known throughout her native country, and “The Bandit Queen” is a dramatized representation of her life story. And what a life it has been.

Born to a family of low caste, she was sold into marriage at age 11 - for a cow and a bicycle. Desperately unhappy, Devi ended up deserting her husband. But things got only worse.

Throughout her early life, she was treated brutally, beaten and raped, first by her husband, then the police and eventually by the very gang members with whom she first sought solace.

Only after gaining personal power and, after a five-year reign as “The Bandit Queen” - exacting on at least one occasion a particularly murderous revenge - was Devi finally brought before the authorities. But such was her power, at least in terms of notoriety, that she was able to negotiate the terms of her own surrender.

After serving a 12-year sentence, Devi was released from prison on Feb. 18, 1994. She is said to be now seeking political office.

Sen’s screenplay is based on Devi’s dictated prison diaries, so it would be hard to call Kapur’s film an objective treatment of a story that rocked India in the early 1980s.

But fairness was one of Kapur’s main concerns. “Making an objective film about a person who has passed into legend is difficult for a creative person used to nudging characters to his ultimate dramatic convenience,” Kapur wrote in the film’s production notes. “If that person still lives, mired in controversy, it creates added social responsibility. But therein lies the challenge.”

Anyone as ignorant of Indian politics as I am could hardly tell how well Kapur handled that challenge. What is abundantly clear, though, is that Kapur was interested in exposing what he sees as the hard plight of the Indian poor.

A plight that is even worse for poor Indian women.

Like the recent New Zealand film “Once Were Warriors,” “The Bandit Queen” portrays a world in which class distinctions are excuses for exploitation. And women rank at the bottom of the hierarchy. They do the work, they bear the children, they aren’t given any say in how to run their own lives much less the world.

They are continually threatened by any male with an unseemly “itch,” and if they don’t give in they are blamed for the man’s frustration.

Blamed and punished. Given such an inherently unfair system, it’s no wonder that Devi became such a heroine to India’s poor. Especially to other women.

Even so, her story is not easy to witness, and Kapur spares us nothing in the retelling. As Devi, talented Indian actress Seema Biswas is forced to endure more humiliation than you would think a person could undergo and not seek suicide.

As one woman at a Wednesday screening explained, “I could go my whole life and not need to see this movie.”

True enough. But she, especially, would also say that Devi’s story is one that needs to be told.

No matter how difficult the experience turns out to be.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “The Bandit Queen” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai and Sunita Bhatt Running time: 1:59 Rating: R (in Hindi with English subtitles)

2. Other views

Here is what other critics say about “Bandit Queen:” Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: Based on fact, filmed with unflinching realism, it’s a powerful, harrowing movie. It’s so well-done, it’s often difficult to watch. Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: In “Bandit Queen,” violence dehumanizes everyone it touches, victim and victimizer both. And only the individual with the strongest spirit can rise above the degradation. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: In many ways, “Bandit Queen’s” program is to make this crime comprehensible and, perhaps, pardonable - a sign that its analysis has jumped the rails to sympathy. To do that, the movie depersonalizes the victims, making them the anonymous extensions of Phoolan’s real foes. That is hardly an example of the justice it so ardently plumps for in Phoolan’s case.

2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “The Bandit Queen” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai and Sunita Bhatt Running time: 1:59 Rating: R (in Hindi with English subtitles)

2. Other views

Here is what other critics say about “Bandit Queen:” Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: Based on fact, filmed with unflinching realism, it’s a powerful, harrowing movie. It’s so well-done, it’s often difficult to watch. Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: In “Bandit Queen,” violence dehumanizes everyone it touches, victim and victimizer both. And only the individual with the strongest spirit can rise above the degradation. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: In many ways, “Bandit Queen’s” program is to make this crime comprehensible and, perhaps, pardonable - a sign that its analysis has jumped the rails to sympathy. To do that, the movie depersonalizes the victims, making them the anonymous extensions of Phoolan’s real foes. That is hardly an example of the justice it so ardently plumps for in Phoolan’s case.



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