'Bandit Queen':
Well-Caste Drama

Washington Post, 28 June 1995, C1 & C5


Rita Kempley

Washington Post Staff Writer

A low-born Hindu woman becomes a folk heroine when she turns on her upper-caste abusers in "The Bandit Queen," a brutal biography of famed outlaw Phoolan Devi. Based on Devi's diaries, this powerful but grueling Indian film is not only a tribute to her spirit, but also a searing indictment of a culture corrupted by the caste system and degraded by chauvinism.

Set in a remote corner of India, the film is a veritable catalogue of mental and physical abuse, including pedophilia and gang rape. And while director Shekhar Kapur doesn't graphically depict the frequent assaults Devi endures, he does not flinch from the sordid material either.

Devi is a flat-chested stripling (Sunita Bhatt) with an already well-developed contempt for men when her life takes its first terrible turn. The 11-year-old daughter of a poor lower-caste farmer, she is married off to a much older man in exchange for a cow and a bicycle. Her mother tries to hold on to

The Killer 'Queen' (Continued to p.C5)

her little girl for another six months but the bridegroom is eager and needs someone to do the chores.

Seema Biswas as the famous Indian outlaw Phoolan Devi In "Bandit Queen."

In her husband's home, Devi becomes little more than a slave, though it's obvious she hasn't the strength to carry the heavy water jugs or the skills to herd the goats. Though he has decided that she's not quite "ripe," the bridegroom becomes aroused while slapping her around. "You're my wife; you have to do this," he says, before forcing himself upon the screaming child.

The next morning, Devi manages to escape and return to her family. But the upper-caste Thakurs in her village consider her a fallen women. The teenage Devi (the sensual Seema Biswas) must put up with the sexual taunts of the high-born youth, who spend their days ogling the women working the fields.

After fighting off one these louts Devi is banished from the village; when she attempts to come home, she is arrested, raped and beaten by the corrupt police. The abuse continues until she becomes the lover of Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey), a tough but tenderhearted hunk who saves her from yet another rapist. A gang leader pro tem, Vikram teaches Devi to kill and rob and invites her to join the gang. The two steal from the rich Thakurs and give some of the loot to the poor.

Still more tragedy awaits Devi, but the heroine perseveres. Like notorious outlaws of the American West, she becomes a legend among the people and a political force to be reckoned with. (The real-life Devi reportly plans to run for public office; apparently, her lower-caste followers are unconcerned with her bloody history.) Biswas brings enormous ferocity and tenacity to the title role of 'The Bandit Queen," a test of endurance not only for the heroine, but the audience.

The Bandit Queen, at the Outer Circle and Shirlington Cineplex Odeons, is in Hindi with English subtitles. It is not rated.
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