Is Bandit Queen my best film ?

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”.

24 Responses to “Is Bandit Queen my best film ?”

  1. SantoshB says:

    Hi Shekhar Kapoor,
    We are proud that you are from India and working as director on international level. We would like you to make an international project with Amitabh Bachchan. It is just a request…and my wishes.
    Thanks.

  2. DQ says:

    Its not the film thats the best…
    Its history that took the best out of you!!!
    The fire to unravel….
    Smile~~~~

  3. DQ says:

    I think tis only India which had an acclaimed bandit to take charge of law and order as of in politics….
    Though she was the only genuine bandit among all cloned bandits!!
    ImaOOoo

  4. DQ says:

    On a clearer note..
    .
    .
    Bandits Cloned!!
    Dang!!!

  5. Krishna says:

    Hello Shekhar
    I haven’t seen Bandit Queen,Elizabeth or Elizabeth:The Golden Age and neither The Four Feathers.Saw Masoom for the first time few weeks on tv and cant tell you how much I loved it…and you made that movie in ’83!! considering many people here wouldnt dare to touch such a subject even today.You could’ve retired after that!….I’ll never meet you or see you but’m happy you exist Shekhar and more so as you’re in the same world as I am and at the same time.
    I didnt know who directed or made Mr. India when I first saw it in ’92 at my boarding school but it couldnt have been anyone else but you….I’ve a question though…why did you headed westwards?? is it that important for us Indians to get a gora’s stamp of approval for everything that we do?
    take it easy
    Cheers
    Krishna.

  6. justbe says:

    not really..the best for sure is yet to come

  7. Arasu Balraj says:

    Hallo Mr.Shekar
    Hope you wouldn’t have forget Arundhati Roy’s opinions on your movie. for your convenience and for the sake of readers, i have given the links below. i think you have not answered them HONESTLY till date.
    The Great Indian Rape-Trick I – http://www.sawnet.org/books/writing/roy_bq1.html
    The Great Indian Rape-Trick II -
    http://www.sawnet.org/books/writing/roy_bq2.html

  8. Harb says:

    #9
    Just as our left and right brains coordinate, similarly, Gaia’s or global culture’s left and right brains (west and east) coordinate.
    For this purpose nature compells our artists and spiritual gurus to go to the west and their scientists and material gurus (FIIs, other great money/wealth managers)to come to the east.
    In an other variation on the theme west has plenty of wealth but lack soul, east has plenty of soul but lack wealth. So nature compells Easterns to go to the west to give them soul and compells Westerns to come to the east to give us wealth.

  9. ajayprabhu says:

    Hi,shekhar
    You are honest ,genius with touch of philosphical and visionry outlook filmaker ,to some extent thats true but I’ve some question about Bandit Queen.When it was released then there was big essay written by Arundhti Roy who said you never met Phoolan and even you didnt listen the demand of movie should shown to phoolan.Why?

  10. Himanshu says:

    Dear Shekhar,
    I am sure those days would have been quite challenging with all the banning and re-releasing, cases filed and retracted, but in the end what stands out is an extremely honest and important work of creativity, one that affected people profoundly, and that’s why we are talking about it 14 yrs later. Thank you for the detailed note above as it explains everything in black and white and puts most open questions to rest.
    I’m sure now when you look back you can ‘smile’ that life turned out well, just like you were when you appear in Bandit Queen driving a truck.
    Best Regards,
    Himanshu

  11. ajayprabhu says:

    Hi,shekhar
    Its nice to see you responded and came with very reasonable argument..My faith and trust in you is restored..Sometimes things just went out of propration and we human beings start fighting about its aunthecity like Mahabhart which people claims, had 8,000 verse at first but it now carries 24,000..So ,I was sure you would have tried your best to get everything right as you dont seem to me opportunistic person at all but I wanted to hear your version..
    thanks
    P.S
    I’ve one request to you why dont you start a forum on your blog where we can discuss all kind of cinemas..

  12. :) says:

    hi shekhar,
    i remember, i saw bandit queen at metro….after which we were to go for dinner………
    i remember being unusually silent during dinner where the friends i was with had to pull me back into the flow of conversation…….
    as for it being your best film……..? hey, come on……..ur rocking…..:) !
    the best is YET TO COME !! how is your paani script coming along ? its raining now…….. does the weather inspire you ? do the thoughts flow better…….:)….?

  13. koizen says:

    I personally think Mr.India simply because its a film! (does it has a story? I dont know)
    But Bandit Queen is a cinema!
    A kind of cinema that was first in many ways…
    1. Indian cinema did not see such stark reality
    2. Abusive language (first time in Indian cinema)
    that reached to many ‘masses’
    3. A female oriented hero, who is a dacoit but
    the film gives why she became a dacoit
    4. Heh heh heh…The Shekhar Kapur directed it
    5. The actors were top class
    6. Because “I” liked it
    Lastly, is Bandit Queen the best ever?
    Considering how it started yes but I think the best is yet to come…I think a sequel is possible even Seema Biswas is at right age to do so…there is ‘Paani’ and who knows Shekhar Kapur can come up with something people did not imagine!
    Sooooooooooooooooooooooo
    Rock on….
    spot on….

  14. Dear Sir,
    the next edition of our Festival will take place in March 2009 and we would like to screen your Bandit Queen in one of our panoramas. Could you please give me a contact to get a print?
    Thanks a lot in advance,
    Warm regards
    Anne Delseth / Fribourg International Film Festival

  15. santosh prasad says:

    hi shekhar,
    bandit queen is most realistic film i hav ever seen…may b bcoz..it tells what i am seeing everyday…what happens with film…is …dissaponting…thats how india is…i specially like d camera work….

  16. Shreyansh says:

    Dear Sir,
    I know i am writing this a bit too late, and don’t know if u will ever read this.
    I saw this movie , when i was 12,my parents were sitting on either sides. At that age you think you know all the abuses, but you try and put a show to your parents that you have never heard them. To make matters worse a German guy was sitting with an Indian lady , in front of us and the lady was explaining and translating all the expleteives to him. This was my first screening of “Bandit Queen”.
    Even at that tender age few aspects of the movie stood out for me:-
    1) The apt Background score from Nusrat Saab.
    2) The astonishing scale and use of landscapes
    3) The brutailty of the characters
    4) The difference how my younger sister and Phoolan Devi were brought up.
    5) The fact that there lies a world not far away from the comforts of Bombay, where there is not much difference between animals and humans.In terms how some upper caste people treated lower caste people and also the thinking of all the characters in the film is similar to animals.
    Even though i didn’t enjoy the movie in the literal sense, but it somehow made a lasting impression on me.
    I have seen the movie many times, ever since, but somehow i come back to the same points again.
    Did u ever think about these?

  17. Nithin Kuriakose says:

    The best film by you, I reckon, would be Mr.India… There are many reasons why I say this, of which one is that even today when I watch it on DVD it brings back memories of when I first watched it during my primary school. The movie still stands out as an epic, which I think, was made way ahead of its time. A few characters have lived on and haunt me now and then (Calendar, Mogambo, Editor Gaitonde just to name a few). I crave for such tangents but then I guess I have grown up and forced myself to accept ‘fabricated reality’ like rest of the world. Ignorance was bliss…

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  19. Mrinal says:

    I still Feel Mr India was the best

  20. Atul Sir says:

    Dear Shekharji,
    This is the ugliest movie I ever seen… don’t mind but the most realistic ever…!
    I realy heat Naamdev Shivalkar from this movie…
    and feel so much (offcource good)about BANDET QEEN… Fulan Devi..
    Regards,
    Atul Sir
    The Devil Writer

  21. adhisesha says:

    hi Mr. Shekar,
    Bandit Queen — One of the great Indian movie.
    By making a film like that, I feel you are
    Bandit king.
    I was grown in rural place. In theaters nearby, therwere only usal commercial films. By luck/mystery they showed “Bandit Queen”. I saw it 10 yrs back, still I can feel its directorial dareness in such a raw film.
    It reminds me of Mani ratnams’ Bombay, kannathil muthamithal & in the movie, you as a producer & again directed by Mani ratnam “Dil Se”

  22. Deepak R says:

    You know Shekhar, today I watched Bandit Queen. I was in early school when it was released and it was out of bounds then. I can’t understand how something made so way back seems to grab me NOW from the first moment. You know this is your most honest attempt. You – simply are not there in the movie, neither is there technique. Nothing..nothing at all sat between me and the murk and dust of chambal. This movie ironically is more ‘masoom’ than any of your other movies including ‘masoom’ itself. Phew..a blast from the past..still so raw and tough and so bloody gritty..
    where is that rawness and fearlessness these days(this is not directed so much at you..but at all filmmakers today)..does the passing of time,weathering at the hands of emotions and knowledge cripple the ability of an artist to express instinctively ?

  23. Gaurav says:

    I was in my teens… around 15, when these movies came… Roja, Bombay, Bandit queen.. and later Satya.

    When I saw Roja, my eyes had tears. I was choked. And could feel the pain the movie conveyed. I could feel the grandeur the movie had.

    When I saw Bombay, same thing happened. I had even more tears coming out of the hall. The movie had shaken my soul.

    When I saw Satya, while returning back in a tempo to IIT, tears unstoppably kept on flowing out of my eyes. I wanted to stop them because roomparter was there along, but could not stop them. I teared for those 10 long minutes.

    The tears came out for whatever had occurred in the movies. The person who wept had heartfelt sorrow for the people and situations depicted in the film.

    A woman was paraded naked and raped brutally in Bandit Queen. This was the height of barbarism. The lowest level of insensitivity. The lowest level to which humans can fall. A level, seeing which a person in the theater would not even want to live in such a world.

    As far as I understand, no one, that is no male, had tears seeing the barbaric acts of naked parading and rape in Bandit Queen. May be this was due to the lust part present in the psyche of the viewers. They had sympathy for the victim, but they also enjoyed the scene- in a way, they also shared a tiny portion of the naked body and rape. They kept on waiting with eagerness when ‘the thing’ will happen. and then analyzing later who would have done this scene.

    The movie did not work as much as to melt the hearts of the veiwers to feel the shame and pain.

    But then, this is really very difficult- almost impossible to be done. The earlier movies had a relatively very very simple scenario… to make feel the viewer the agony and pain of a wife, a terrorist, an engineer, an army officer, a father, a mother, a lover, a simple human being. And the hearts melted.

    But how to make feel a male the pain of a women being raped? In my view, Bandit Queen failed in that. I know you feel the pain when you see those scenes, but Shekhar, how to connect with the average man? May be BQ did that for many and may be for most, but I am yet to come across a man like that!

    Has there been a movie where a woman was paraded naked or raped, and where a lot of male audience, watching the movie for the first time, had tears in eyes, choked voices, silent hearts, and painful minds? When some of them cried?

  24. Amrita says:

    Thanks Gaurav for pointing out the male reaction to the terrifying scenes in ‘Bandit Queen’.

    I dragged one of my classmates to watch it in the theater. I couldn’t understand some of the language, but the scenes needed no translation. The bare butt rape was the most shocking scene I had ever seen.

    The worst was still to come. The gang rape and nude parade of ‘Phoolan’ was horrifying.

    I was very young and had no idea that a human being was capable of such cruelty….esp to a woman. I remember grabbing my friend’s shirt in sheer terror (by the time the film got over, his shirt was torn…)

    I couldn’t even comfort myself with the thought that it was just a movie, since it was based on a true story.

    What truly left me shell-shocked was the lewd behavior of the men in the audience.

    As I cringed and sobbed through all the agonizing shots, a sizable number of the men whooped, whistled and hooted, during the rape and the stripping shots. (This was a decent theater in South Bombay)

    It was very traumatizing. My opinion of men changed drastically after that.

    Based on that experience, I have a sick feeling that if a man knows that he can get away with rape, chances are that he will…. rape or at least attempt to.

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