True story of a femme bandit who eluded the Indian authorities for five years makes initially leisurely but finally gripping viewing in “Bandit Queen,” a slow starter that reserves its biggest punches for the end. This often visually striking movie could have limited theatrical legs beyond the fest circuit, but would stand better commercial chances with the first half back on the editing bench.
Phoolan Devi finally surrendered to the police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in January 1983, accused of murder and kidnapping. Pic is based on the dictated prison diaries of the woman herself who, after a change of government, was finally released in February this year to local superstar status.
A long, 15-minute pre-credit sequence opens in 1968, with Devi a feisty young girl burdened by her low-caste background but not prepared to accept a standard rural existence. Married off, she submits to her husband’s sexual demands but finally leaves the village in search of an independent life.
Post-main title, she’s an assured young woman (Seema Biswas) living with relatives but the target of insults from local studs. One day, she comes across handsome young local bandit Vikram (Nirmal Pandey), and a spark flies.
Later, while back with her parents, she’s kidnapped by a bandit gang of which Vikram is a member. When the sleazoid gang head publicly rapes her, Vikram kills him, takes over, and makes her a full-fledged member too.
Things get complicated when the real gang henchman, SriRam (Govind Namdeo), is released from prison and re-assumes leadership. When Vikram is mysteriously shot in the leg one day, Devi nurses him in the big city, and the two subsequently engage in a growing spiral of violence, starting with her publicly rifle-butting her former husband to death.
It’s here, some 75 minutes in, that the pic finally starts to grab the attention, with Vikram declaring her a real bandit at last (“Kill one and they’ll hang you. Kill 20, and you’re famous”) prior to his sudden death at the hands of SriRam.
The dramatic screws tighten with a shocking sequence — all the more powerful for its visual discretion — of Devi gang-raped by SriRam’s men and then stripped naked in front of the villagers. Her subsequent revenge, dubbed the Behmai Massacre of February ’81, forms the dramatic climax of the pic.
For Western auds unacquainted with either the true story or the intricacies of India’s caste system (blamed for all of Devi’s actions), the movie’s early reels assume too much prior knowledge to exert true dramatic pull. The disarray of the authorities and the woman’s growing celebrity among the masses are also thinly sketched, with the movie almost entirely set among the bandit world.
Comprehension isn’t helped by sometimes choppy editing in the early going, and helmer Shekhar Kapur’s habit (striking in the latter stages but confusing earlier on) of dispensing with intros when moving to a new sequence. Effect is like joining a conversation halfway through and having to piece together what’s going on. Date and place captions also seem randomly rather than systematically employed.
Still, once the story moves into high gear, Kapur brings out his big guns to often stunning effect. The gang-rape, set to the sight and sound of a creaking barn door as each male enters, has a shocking casualness. And the final massacre , shot almost entirely from high angles, is paced and staged almost like a western shootout.
Though at times the pic wears its right-on western political credentials too obviously on its sleeve, Kapur keeps pulling the stylistic rug out from beneath the viewer’s feet by refs to commercial Hindi productions (notably in the “Bollywood”-style treatment of the Vikram-Phoolan Devi romance) and raw, four-letter expletives issuing from the mouth of the heroine. Scene of Devi stripped naked is a jaw-dropper in Indian cinema terms.
Biswas is terrific in the title role, moving from tough to tender with natural ease. Pandey makes a handsome, sensitive partner, and Namdeo a true villain.
Production values are high, with colorful, crisp location lensing by Ashok Mehta rating a special bouquet.