June Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 12 years ago

Shekhar Kapur’s biopic Bandit Queen has been mired in controversy since its release in 1994. The film is based on the life of Phoolan Devi, an Indian dacoit turned politician, who after being gang-raped by upper-caste men in her village, went on a killing spree. Phoolan Devi, who the filmmakers never bothered to actually meet during production, criticised the film for its inaccuracies, whereas Indian author Arundhati Roy wrote a scathing essay in which she accused Kapur of depicting a rape scene without Devi’s consent. The film was briefly banned in India and Phoolan Devi only rescinded her complaints about the film after the producers, Channel Four, paid her £40,000.

Controversies aside, the film does address the problems faced by lower-caste Hindus in India and Phoolan, played by Seema Biswas in an extremely strong performance, is a strong, defiant woman who fights back against the forces of oppression.

The film is often difficult to watch. Early on in the movie, we hear 11-year-old Phoolan’s cries as her husband, who is old enough to be her father, rapes her. And around halfway through the film, in an equally brutal scene, we see an older Phoolan exact her revenge as she hits him repeatedly with a rifle until he finally dies.

The barren, rocky landscapes shown in the film visually highlight the theme of hardship and Nusrat Fateh Ali’s mournful qawwalis provide an apt background score. And although the film is anything but standard Bollywood fare, it did go on to win multiple Filmfare and National Film awards in India.

This movie review was originally published in the June issue of Newsline under the headline “Controversial Queen.”

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.