Certainly more people have seen the two Elizabeth’s, Massom and Mr India. However the following were the director’s notes attached to the DVD that were written in a tearing hurry. The Independent newspaper, in the UK, however, decided to publish my notes as a full page review of the film ! And so I read my notes again. Sometimes when you write under pressure, as I did this piece – your own words surprise you with their honesty. I am sharing the notes with you :
“When a Directors reflects on his body of work there is always a film that stands out as his personal favourite. Often that impression is coloured by the experience during the filming. But when the ‘on set’ experience is astounding and results in a film that survives years that have passed. When the film has been etched in the political consciousness of the people that watched it. When a film has caused a social re-evaluation. When a film has been at the centre of a political storm and caused an uproar in India’s parliament. What can a Director say, but that this was my most defining film – one that I would find very very difficult to surpass…..
Bandit Queen was first banned by the censor board in India, not so much for it’s language and the acute and frank depiction of the humiliation and brutality of rape, but mostly for it’s politics. Where a society and a government controlled by the higher caste’s saw this film as a potentially subversive film that could lead to political disruption.
And it did. Phoolan Devi, who’s life the main character in this film depicts, was freed from prison, came out and formed her own political party representing the lower castes, galvanized oppressed women to vote for her, and won a seat in India’s parliament. All of this after the film was released.
And so what was so incredible about that ? Consider this. Phoolan Devi was completely uneducated. She could not speak without using expletives that would make a a grown man blush. And she had spent her whole adult life as a bandit. Phoolan was married at 12 to man 18 years her senior, subject to child rape, and ran away. An outsider from that moment for breaking the demeaning cultural orthodoxy that puts young low caste women in that situation, Phoolan Devi became India’s most famous outlaw, gaining the loyalty and respect of the low caste villagers and communities, and the hatred and resentment of the higher caste’s. Her ‘career’ ended when, in retaliation to being gang raped in a village, she took every high caste man in that village ,and on that fateful day, shot down 24 of them. That act brought down the high caste government in that state. From that day on Phoolan Devi was hounded and ultimately she had to surrender, but on terms that she would be released after 8 years in prison.
When we made the film Phoolan Devi was still in prison after 11 years, but was released by the time the film came out. When the film first came out in India after a long battle with the Censor Board, it threatened to become a huge box office grosser. In a country dominated by the so called ‘Bollywood’ cinema, people cried foul – the film they said succeeded only because it had a woman full frontal and naked for the first time in Indian cinema. In deference to that sentiment, the distributors of the film decided to do ‘women only’ shows. They were even more popular, till a few high caste people got together launched a public litigation against both the film and the censor board. The film was withdrawn again, not to be released for another six months while we all fought for it in India’s Supreme Courts.
Phoolan Devi in the meantime went against the film. Mostly she claimed that she was not gang raped, but later went against the very lawyers and activists that supported her and claimed she was. But more importantly she won two terms in India’s parliament. And was tragically gunned down during her second term outside her home in Delhi. A case that still lies unresolved.
I think the best films try an not resolve themselves. They set up more questions than they can answer. Or even try and answer. Leaving issues in audience minds and emotions. That to me is one of the strengths of Bandit Queen. People came out feeling uncomfortable and angry. A lot of the anger was thrown back at the film maker. And why not ? I was angry when I explored the story. I was also guilt for the horrendous inequalities in our society. I was guilty of every act in the film myself. We all are. For this is not the story of one woman. It is a story of millions of women in a society that each one of us have in some way condoned or contributed to, even by not expressing strong dissent.
Bandit Queen is guerrilla film making at it’s very hight. It was adventurous, dangerous, rebellious, exploratory film making. But it was honest film making. All I asked for from my crew and actors was moments of honesty. And they gave me back more …
And more …
And in the midst of the expansive desert of high end, big studio film making, I remember Bandit Queen as an oasis of the truest, the most instinctual expression possible. I ache to go back there”.