Phoolan Devi, released earlier this year after 11 years' imprisonment, has said of the hotly controversial Indian film "Bandit Queen" that it "should be called a work of imagination and not my real life story."
That's good advice because regardless of how close it is--or isn't--to the facts, 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.
Kapur and Sen place Devi at the worst possible conjunction of caste and gender. A member of the lowly Mallah caste of fishermen and their families in the state of Uttar Pradesh, she is traded by her father to a man 20 years her senior in exchange for a bicycle and a cow. She has in effect been sold into slavery and is promptly raped by her husband. From the start, however, young Phoolan (played as a child by Sunita Bhatt) displays a proud resistance to her fate.
Yet in running away from her husband, Devi rapidly discovers that now she has no status to protect her from rape by many men, in particular the higher-caste Thakurs. A woman of lesser spirit and strength surely would have died or been driven mad by such incessant brutality and public humiliation, but Devi (now played by Seema Biswas) survives, propelled inevitably into an outlaw gang. Its leader is shot to death by the handsome, enlightened Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) while raping Devi; in no time Devi and Mallah are an Indian Bonnie and Clyde with Robin Hood instincts.
There's no doubt about it: Shekhar Kapur is a terrific storyteller, a highly visceral powerhouse filmmaker who can depict terrible brutality with an unflinching yet not exploitative gaze. The systematic, repetitive degradation of a woman that we witness is altogether convincing, as is Devi's endurance.
What we have to take on faith is that Devi and her gang were not mere bandits, that there was a romantic, tender quality to her relationships with the men she loves and that she possessed a nobility of purpose in calling attention to the doubly oppressive plight of low-caste Indian women.
Kapur's Devi, however, is shown to be unapologetically vengeful on a very large scale, which the real Devi has protested vehemently. In any event, Biswas gives us an often terrified but ultimately enduring Phoolan of awe-inspiring strength.
Wherever the truth lies, "Bandit Queen" on its own terms succeeds as a galvanic, eye-popping experience whose pain, vigor and passion is as richly expressed in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's mesmerizing score as in cinematographer Ashok Mehta's indelible images. One Indian columnist got carried away and proclaimed "Bandit Queen" the greatest Indian film ever made, but surely the many candidates for that honor fall among the films of Satyajit Ray, whose final--and radically different--picture, "The Stranger," by coincidence also opens today.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: This film, while not exploitative, depicts extreme and constant violence, particularly by men directed toward women. Some nudity, repeated instances of rape, strong language.
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'Bandit Queen' Seema Biswas: Phoolan Devi Nirmal Pandey: Vikram Mallah Man Singh: Manoj Bajpai Rajesh Vivek: Mustaquim An Arrow release of a Film Four International and Kaleidoscope presentation. Director Shekhar Kapur. Producer Sundeep S. Bedi. Screenplay by Mala Sen. Cinematographer Ashok Mehta. Editor Renu Saluja. Costumes Dolly Ahluwalia. Music Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Production designer Eve Mavrakis. Art director Ashok Bhagat. In Hindi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., through July 10. (310) 478-6379.