I don’t trust any man.
—Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), Bandit Queen
“I am Phoolan Devi, you sisterfuckers!” The first line spoken in Bandit Queen indicates the energy and potential affront to follow. Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), alternately so called the “Goddess of Flowers” and the “Rebel of the Ravines,” stands shadowed, behind bars, resolute.
This startling image sets up the film’s source, namely, Devi’s “dictated prison diaries,” made after she was arrested, in real life, in 1983. The scene cuts immediately to scenes showing her childhood in the Indian village, Ka Purwa in Uttar Pradesh, sold by her Devidin father into marriage at age 11 (In exchange for a cow and a bicycle). Her father announces, “A daughter is always a burden,” and frankly, he has no idea how much of a “burden” this particular daughter will become. Put on a boat and sent off to another remote village, she’s less desolate than furious. And she makes it her mission to fight back—against the local boys who taunt her and the husband who tries to bed her, in a grueling scene that takes her point of view, the lights and shadows red, the close-ups frightening, his culturally condoned sense of entitlement underlined by the harshly percussive soundtrack (composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan).
Later scenes (including repeated assaults on Devi, as well as her gang rape after she has become renowned as the “Bandit Queen”) are equally upsetting, and inspired controversy on the film’s initial release; temporarily banned by Indian censors and decried by traditionalists worldwide, it also prompted Devi’s own lawsuit in an effort to prevent its release, as well as frequent theatergoer walk-outs when it was released. But the brutality makes its point: the film indicts Indian inequalities, as these ignite Devi’s lifelong resistance, as well as her fear, rage, and desire for justice, however rudimentary.
Her battle seems endless. When she runs away from her husband and is kidnapped by a gang of bandits, who proceed to abuse her until one of them is shot in the head, mid-rape, by another bandit, the handsome young man who would become her lover and mentor, Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey). Portrayed in the film as a valiant and often moralistic criminal (“I don’t buy people,” he tells Devi after saving her from the latest rape scene, “I earn their respect”), he teaches her to shoot, ride horses, and survive in the desert that would be their home. Their romantic partnership is imagined here in a kind of poetic shorthand—nights spent singing round the campfire, successful robberies, and dynamic sex scenes (their first takes place against a mountain wall, the camera tracking past their bodies and then hovering around a corner, as you listen to their gasps of pleasure and surprise).
Still, the film does not shy away from the fact that Devi’s life is premised on and shaped by violence. Repeatedly, she is enraged and horrified by horrors, whether committed by others and herself. While the movie surely presents her as a victim, it also shows her own ferocity. Much of the effect stems from the brilliant work by cinematographer Ashok Mehta: the camera is as restless and as relentless as its object, never quite able to contain her, but eager even to suggest her potency and verve.
Repeatedly, the vigilante folk hero Devi is set against India’s caste system and ritual misogyny, and more specifically, the landed Thakurs, brings her admirers and also detractors. When Vikram is murdered by their gang’s Thakur leader, Sri Ram (Govind Namdeo), just released from prison and looking to regain his position. SriRam also engineers her three-day-long gang rape, after which he forces her to walk naked through a village main street, to underline her abject humiliation (“This is what we do to low caste goddesses,” he announces to all onlookers.) The sequence is stunning: the attacks are cast in deep shadow and conveyed in effective close-ups (her bloodied forehead, a hand grabbing her face, her bruised legs), with the door creaking open and shut, as each rapist enters for his turn.
Devi’s response to this abuse is also remarkable: initially traumatized, she soon swears vengeance against the entire Thakur clan, and gains access to her own gang, including Vikram’s friend Man Singh (Manoj Bajpai), made up largely of Muslims who, she asserts, don’t “believe in caste.” They make their name as bandits—and Devi assumes her soon infamous image, in military uniform and red bandana—and eventually kill more than 20 Thakurs in Behmai, the village in Uttar Pradesh where she was assaulted. Though The film underscores both the dreadful mayhem of the event and her utter determination to punish those who wronged her. She kills men as screaming babies watch, guns, sunlight, and blood blurred together into a wash of frenzied aggression and terrifying aftermath.
The film closes with Devi’s arrest and imprisonment in 1983, bringing you back round to another image of her face behind bars, defiant and furious, and once again 11 years old: the woman becomes the child, just as the child evolved into the woman. After 1994, when the film was released, Devi’s story continued: she was released from prison, ran for Parliament in 1996 (as a member of the Samajwadi [socialist] party), and assassinated in 2001, when she was just 37. One of the three men who shot at her, Sher Singh Rana, claimed he killed her to avenge the Behmai massacre. As it tells Devi’s incredible story, Bandit Queen is an extraordinary portrait, complicated, dire, and riveting.