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"A daughter is always a burden"
Bandit Queen (DVD)
Member Name: sunmeilan
Bandit Queen (DVD)
Advantages: Well-acted, compelling true story
Disadvantages: Very violent, includes rape scenes
Phoolan Devi is played by Seema Biswas, in what appears to be her first film role. Certainly, it was this role that made her famous and with very good reason. She is amazing in the role. Phoolan is not the most likable of characters - she is stubborn, foul-mouthed and won't give in to bullying, although she seems to attract an awful lot of it. Nevertheless, it is hard not to feel great pity for what happens to her, simply because of her position in society. She is brutalised on more than one occasion and the way it is filmed is so realistic, it is painful to watch. Seema Biswas is utterly convincing. She doesn't even attempt to glamourize the role - there are no pretty hairstyles, nice clothes and make-up here, and much of the time she looks dirty and scruffy. Nevertheless, Phoolan's determination to fight for what she believed was right is very catching; I was gripped to the screen from start to finish.
This really is a one-woman film. There are a few other characters, but only one that is really worth mentioning - that is Vikram Mallah, played by Nirmal Pandey. He really provides the only eye-candy to the film - he is very good-looking in a scruffy way, but really the reason he stands out is he is just about the only man who treats Phoolan with kindness. He rescues her from rape and even shoots his gang leader to stop him from doing any further harm to her. Their relationship is fiery, but they obviously respect each other - the two actors work very well together and there is a real feeling of chemistry between them. Nirmal Pandey doesn't have all that much on-screen time compared to Seema, but he gives a strong performance and really left an impression on me.
The story is a truly amazing one. I would have found it deeply realistic anyway, despite the jaw-dropping horror of it all, but what is even more amazing is that it is at least based on a true story. Phoolan Devi really did exist and became a bandit queen. She apparently didn't approve of the film, so it isn't clear quite how much of it is completely true; nevertheless, it has been suggested that it is because she didn't like the way she was portrayed, rather than she was unhappy with the story that was told. How much is true/made up aside, this is still a superb story for a film and is most certainly one that ought to be much better known in the West. The film is, of course, not in English (apart from a few lines), it is in Hindi, but the subtitles are excellent and, much of the time, they are not necessary anyway, because the action tells the story.
For anyone wondering if the cast (which is an enormous one) stop in the middle of their fighting to have a Bollywood-style song and dance session - you can set your mind at rest, there is none of that here. There is virtually no humour or light-heartedness throughout the entire film. There is, however, a great deal of violence. In fact, the violence rarely stops, and at times, it can be very hard to watch. Phoolan is raped at least three times and although it is not at all graphic, the pain on her face and the screams she emits are heart-rending. She does, however, get some revenge - she goes back to look for her husband and beats him to a pulp. She is also responsible for the deaths of countless other men, some of them innocent - which did feel very unnecessary. The UK classification of 18 is most definitely right here.
I am interested in India and its culture, and know a little about the basics, but no more - I've certainly never been there. It isn't necessary to have a deep understanding of how things work in India in order to watch the film, but it was educational in many ways. One of the issues highlighted was the caste system and how women of a low caste were (are?) particularly badly treated. The scary thing is that Phoolan Devi didn't exist in the nineteenth century - her story happened in the 1980s. I found this amazing and can only hope that her situation has helped to educate Indians - although I believe that the caste system is still very much in evidence in the more rural areas, where women are not valued. As Phoolan's own father said: "A daughter is always a burden".
The setting, which I believe is Uttar Pradesh, is incredibly desolate and matches the story beautifully. Director Shekhar Kapur certainly made the most of what he could find - lots of grey rock and cliff faces, ideal for hiding a group of bandits. It does add to the horror of the story, as does the background music - but it certainly isn't for anyone who just wants a light-hearted story to escape with for a couple of hours.
There are just a couple of extras, but nothing of any great worth - just an audio commentary with the director and the original theatrical trailer. I would have really appreciated a behind the scenes documentary, but it wasn't to be.
I watched this on Valentine's Day - not deliberately - and it was certainly one of the most anti-Valentine's Day films that I could have watched. The great sadness is that Phoolan Devi is forced to respond in the only way that she knows - by fighting and treating people without humanity. There is obviously a reason for this - she is given no other choice, but it is very sad and disheartening to see. Nevertheless, this is a really great film and one that certainly deserves a larger audience, in the West at least. Just don't go into it expecting to be cheered up - you almost certainly won't be, although hopefully you will count your own blessings. Highly recommended.
The DVD is available from play.com for £4.99.
Running time: 119 minutes
Summary: Excellent film, but the violence will be too much for some