A film review by
Linda Lopez McAlister
on "The Women's Show"
WMNF-FM (88.5), Tampa, FL
July 22, 1995
I've seen a really very problematic film this week, one that,
from the subject matter, might have been an important feminist film if it
had been done by different filmmakers. As it is, it calls world attention
to the plight of low caste women in India, but seems to do so for the
wrong reasons and in a way that might be more harmful to women than
helpful. The film is "Bandit Queen," directed by Shekhar Kapur from a
screenplay by Mala Sen. It purports to tell the true story of Phoolan
Devi, a low caste Indian woman who, in the early 1980s, became a media
hero in India as the leader of a violent gang of bandits.
I understand the media hype went so far as to include the sale of
"Devi Dolls," as this woman was being mythologized as a hero -- but you
can bet the profits did not go to her. She was ultimately imprisoned and
has only recently been released. In a way, this film seems to be cashing
in on this woman's notoriety, while she has gone to court to try to
prevent its release because of the offensiveness of the multiple rape
scenes and sequences of sexual humiliation.
Phoolan Devi (portrayed by Seema Biswas) has had a horrific life.
Sold by her father into marriage to a thirty-three year old man when she
was just eleven (for a cow and a bicycle), the first rape occurs at the
hands of her husband who was teaching her a lesson for being
insufficiently respectful of her mother-in-law. Rather than being cowed,
she runs away, but her family won't take her back and she has to fend for
herself, doing farm labor, at first. But as a "loose," low caste woman in
the village every Takur (higher caste) man thinks he can have her simply
for the taking and when she rebuffs the headman's son no one will take
her word against his claim that she tried to sexually entrap him. She is
harassed, molested, raped, imprisoned, purchased by affluent higher-caste
men, and finally, kidnapped by bandits. But the bandit society is as
divided by caste differences as is the rest of society and she is used as
the whore of the Takur gang leader until, finally, he is shot by Vikram
Mallah (Nirwal Pandeg) a gang-member of her own caste who is virtually
the only man she has ever met who treats her with respect and kindness.
He teaches her what she needs to know to be a member of the gang and,
ultimately, they fall in love (though her experience with men up to that
point has been so uniformly awful that their first intimacy is fraught
with ambivalence and the scene is a very powerful one. When Vikram is
eventually killed, Phoolan Devi is allowed by the men who control the
gangs to form her own gang composed of lower-caste former members of
Vikram's gang. She commits daring raids and seeks not only money but
revenge against her husband, the Takurs who mistreated her, and anyone
who is mistreating or marrying off young girls. Her methods are the
bloody and violent ones she has learned from her own experience.
What's wrong with this film, in my view, is that the filmmakers
have tried to have it both ways--they want to seem to condemn the way
women are thought of and treated as chattel in this rural, back water of
patriarchy and yet they sensationalize these very attitudes and behaviors
to market the film and bring patrons into the theater. The film's poster
quotes a critic who calls it a "white hot action/adventure film," and,
indeed, there were men in the theater viewing it as just that, a
nifty-shoot 'em-up with lots of blood and lots of realistic "sex" scenes
that are mostly rapes, including a ghastly gang rape that goes on
I've recently been writing about ways in which feminist
filmmakers who want to take on the subject of violence against women in
their films need to (and do) find cinematic strategies to depict that
violence in ways that don't incite the audience members who might be so
inclined to identify with the perpetrators. Maybe I ought to send a copy
of my paper to these filmmakers, for surely they are in need of a
different approach than the one they used here.
Phoolan Devi, it seems to me, was right to try to stop this film
(and it has been banned by the censors in India, I understand) for it
recapitulates and cashes in on the horrible things Devi deplores and it
only pretends to.
For the WMNF Women's Show this has been Linda Lopez McAlister on
Women and Film.
Linda Lopez McAlister is professor of women's studies and philosophy at
the University of South Florida in Tampa, and edits HYPATIA: A Journal
of Feminist Philosophy. She is currently a visiting research associate
in the Alice Paul Center/Women's Studies Program at the University of
Copyright 1995 by Linda Lopez McAlister. All rights reserved. Please do
not reprint this review without the permission of the author.
Phoolan Devi page