-Phoolan Devi’s letter to an Indian police officer.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Shekhar Kapur’s riveting movie ‘Bandit Queen’ first stirred a firestorm of controversy in India, and over 10 years since the movie’s infamous subject matter, Phoolan Devi, was shot dead in New Delhi. Now after the passage of time and away from the controversy that surrounded the film, it can truly be acknowledged as a masterpiece of film making. It’s a powerful portrayal of one woman’s fight, however questionable the method, to get revenge for her brutal treatment in a patriarchal society where caste and gender is the standard by which one gets respect and dignity.
Phoolan Devi was to some a Robin Hood-like figure who was revered by India’s lower castes as a heroine who fought back against an unjust caste system and sent a strong message to those who sat at the top of the pecking order that their maltreatment of the lower castes will not be tolerated. Women, especially saw her as a courageous and gutsy lady who took matters into her own hands to maintain her own honour in a male dominated society. Others, however, saw her as a vicious killer and a dacoit who murdered and robbed upper-caste landlords, without any pity and remorse.
The incident that made her famous in India and around the world was the 1981 massacre of 24 upper-caste Thakur men in the village of Behmai in Uttar Pradesh. The men were largely innocent and did not have anything to do with the sexual abuse that she been forced to endure over the years. Never the less, the massacre made her reputation and alarmed the corridors of power in Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi who set up a massive police hunt to arrest her.
The movie does not claim to make any moral judgment on her, but simply tells the story of a woman who was dealt a very bad hand by life and how she dealt with that unfortunate reality.
The film starts and ends with a foul-mouthed bang. The opening sequence shows the older Phoolan Devi shouting at the screen ‘I am Phoolan Devi, you @*#$^&’, while the younger version repeats the swear word at the end of the film, almost as an act of defiance to the audience. Between these bookended sequences we are told her tragic story and her rise to infamy.
She was born in a small village in Ghura ka Purwa, into the Mallah subcaste. At the age of 11 she is married to a man named name Putti Lal, who is nearly thrice her age, after the groom paid her parents a cow and a bicycle for her hand in marriage. Putti Lal turns out to be a physically abusive husband who wastes no time in violating her. She stays with him a few days but returns home to her parents because she is unhappy. After being sent back to her husband she stays with him only for a few more months and runs away again, this time determined not to go back. In the film her reason for running away again from her husband is due to the fact that he is an uncaring and abusive man. According to an article by veteran journalist Khushwant Singh, the real reason she decided to leave her elderly husband for good, was that even at a young age, she had developed an appetite for sex, which her elderly husband could not fulfill. Whatever the case may be, her family is distraught, because a girl leaving her husband was regarded as shameful.As Phoolan grows older she becomes the target of non-consensual fondling and harassment by the higher ranked Thakur caste, which is blamed on her, rather than the men who actually perpetrated the encounters. At a village meeting, the panchayat decides to banish her from the village, because according to one of the men who tried to rape her, “she was itching for it”.
Devastated by the humiliation, Phoolan leaves the village and stays with her cousin Kailash. En route to another village, she encounters a gang of dacoits from the Babu Gujjar gang, led by a man named Vikaram Mallah Mastana, who becomes enchanted by her. Later on Phoolan is forced to leave the home of her cousin and in vain tries to have the ban on her returning to her home village lifted. When she goes to the local police to help her, they in turn arrest her and subject her to beatings and rape. Unknown to her the local Thakurs put up bail for her, which in reality is a bribe paid through the cops to the Babu Gujjar gang. Gujjar in turn arrives at her home to collect his prize.