The Indian Queen
Biographical movies about the setbacks and triumphs of national folk heroes don’t get any more angry and assaultive than the controversial opus that opened in the U.S. 21 years ago today. Bandit Queen (1994), from Hindu director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Four Feathers) and adapting a book by activist Mala Sen partly based on its subject’s own prison diaries, dramatizes with uncompromising brutality and detail the true story of Phoolan Devi (powerfully played by Seema Biswas), a rural Indian girl who resisted and rebelled against the country’s caste system that allowed men to dominate and violate women in body-abusing and soul-shattering servitude, becoming the legendary leader of an outlaw gang herself. Beautifully shot on desert and mountain locations by veteran cinematographer Ashok Mehta, the film was a cultural and political flashpoint in India, igniting a showdown between its creators and the Government Censor Board, who clashed about the degree to which its reality-inspired horrors could be depicted, as well as Devi herself, who sued the filmmakers for violation of privacy in their recreation of a gang rape. Two decades later, it resonates as an indictment of class and gender inequalities and – flashing forward to this contentious election year – a visionary outcry about the roiling rage of the ill-used and underprivileged. “If there is a moral to Bandit Queen, it is that violence inevitably begets violence. Miss Devi is shown to be motivated less by politics than by a thirst for revenge. For every harrowing scene in which she is raped and treated as an animal, there is an equally harrowing one in which she lashes back with a ferocious, uncontrolled fury,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times. “Miss Biswas's viscerally compelling portrayal of the title character lends the film a white-hot core of passion. In spite of her limitless vengefulness, you feel for her. She is an abused beast that has broken out of its cage to run wild. If she is no goddess, there is something miraculous in her will not only to survive but to become a leader.” Kevin Thomas’s Los Angeles Times appraisal was equally vigorous: “This explosive picture is as potent in projecting its myth of the outlaw hero as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Adventures of Robin Hood. Director Shekhar Kapur and writer Mala Sen have bonded dynamic adventure and romance and fiery social protest together with an electrifying effectiveness. Bandit Queen is an astonishing, overpowering piece of rabble-rousing, consciousness-raising, epic-scale filmmaking that unquestionably breaks ground in the Indian cinema in brutal candor if not theme.” With a marvelously candid Audio Commentary by its director and a surging and pungent score by Nusrat Fateh, Ali Khan and Roger White on an Isolated Track, it continues to break ground on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.