Archive for the ‘Bandit Queen’ Category

Bandit Queen filming and the caste system

The village where I shot much of Bandit Queen was physically divided into the Lower and the Higher castes. You could tell. The low caste dwellings were not only on the lower part of the gentle hill, but built of mud and bits of trees, shrubs and any other material you could lay your hands on. Quite run down. On the rise of the hill was the Upper Caste village. Built of bricks and mortar. The people better dressed and looking healthier. Better fed and less dark from being land owners rather than agricultural labour.

On a really hot day I was scouting for locations in the low caste part of the village. My throat was dry and I leaned over the prickly bush fencing to a woman in a house and asked for some water. There was hesitation. She looked embarrassed and called out to her husband. I repeated my request. The husband too looked hesitant , and then finally apologized and said that they could not give me water to drink. I asked why.

“You will be going to have lunch at the ‘high caste’ house after this” was his reply. I was surprised. Lunch for the crew was normally served in one of the houses of the ‘higher caste’ families in the other side of the village. Everyone knew that. But his response intrigued me.

“So may I have some water before I go ” I asked.

“Sir, we are low caste people” He replied.

“So ?” I responded.

“The high caste people will not want you walking into their house after you have drunk water given by us”

I was taken aback. Who does not know about the caste system in India, but to come face to face with it like that was a bit of a shock.

“Well, it does not matter to me, and if you want, I will not tell them” I said.

“They will know. It is our duty to tell you this”

I realized how difficult it is to break a centuries old tradition that is ingrained into your psyche. Fear of retribution. Fear of imagined sin.

But I did get my small pitcher of water to quench my thirst , by promising the family that I will tell my hosts that I have dunk water from a low caste home before I enter their house. As I came to have lunch with the rest of the crew, I thought about forgetting the whole incident. But I had made a promise, so I informed the high caste host that I had just had drunk water from the hands of a low caste family.

The family looked at each other not knowing how to handle this. I was after all a known film maker from the city and to them therefore and important guest. I had put them in an awkward position. The head of the family resolved the issue.

” It’s ok. Just wash your hands outside the house before your step in”.

So vividly do I remember their young daughter stepping out with a small steel ‘lota’ (vessel) in her hand, and just outside the house symbolically pouring water over my hands, before I stepped into the house.

A small symbolic gesture that upheld centuries of oppression.

My previous post was a short story called ‘Brides of the Well’. It was written for the National Geographic book published last year called ‘ Written on Water’. Some arguments have turned to whether I should have used the caste system to tell the story, and in doing so am I anti Hindu and pro- Muslim. I found these arguments ridiculous. Writings come from interpretations of ones own life experiences.

My parents were refugees from Lahore during Partition. Being a doctor my father went back to Lahore to treat the injured and dying. He felt compelled to do so by his medical oath. Only a few times during his life time was I able to provoke him to talk about the horrendous violence he saw. Yet not once in his life did he ever express an anti Muslim sentiment. In fact when I almost married a Muslim girl my parents fully supported me, proud of the fact that her father was a great Urdu poet. He himself wrote Urdu.

“We lived like brothers and gave as much respect to each other’s festivals as we did to ours. Till partition came there was only harmony between communities in Lahore” Was all he ever said.

Nirmal Pandey and Bandit Queen

When I was casting for an actor in the role of Vikram Mallah in Bandit Queen, I was looking for a man that on the surface was as rugged and handsome as any. But inside was a gentle and soft. A man completely in touch with his feminine self. After all, we all are a balance between the yin and the yan, the feminine and the masculine within ourselves. But often that balance becomes disproportionate, often with too much of the masculine, which if not tempered by the feminine, becomes arrogant and violent. Looking for self worth in acts against the feminine, against women. I am not talking about sexual preferences at all, just the inherent balance of being human.
The moment I met Nirmal Pandey I knew he was right for the part. He was questioning, searching, yearning, extremely gentle and completely comfortable in his own skin. He was comfortable in his feminine self. And for those of you that remember the first love making scene between Vikram Mallah and Phoolan Devi against the rock wall at dawn will know what I mean. I needed an actor that would allow the actress complete sexual domination without his own ego coming in the way. For a girl (Phoolan Devi) that had experienced sex only as an act of violence and humiliation needed to explore those very acts before she discovered her own sexuality beyond violence.
And few actors would have been able to perform that scene. Seema Biswas was outstanding, creating and exploring the complexities of confusion between sexual desire and the fear of violence and rape. But Nirmal as Vikram Mallah was a perfect foil. Reacting acutely to every moment, every nuance that was happening magically between the actors. In fact Nirmal was the bond between the audience and Seema Biswas – interpreting vividly what Seema was potraying.
Nirmal was so attractive to women that encountered him, that he would set of chain reaction in the crew – and I once even had to let a British make up lady go because her obsession with Nirmal was getting out of hand. At the Cannes and London Film festival he was constantly surrounded by young girls. I thought this was the makings of an International Star. But that never happened. I don’t think Nirmal was ready to make the personal sacrifices for stardom. He was not ready to take on the mantle of narcissism that is so essential to travel that path. He was a small town boy at heart and never comfortable in changing that.
Throughout the filming of Bandit Queen, Nirmal was the searcher. One of those actors that was eager to give all of himself, unafraid to bare his inner soul. He would look to discover things about himself as an actor and a human being through his performance, and never once blocked any suggestion or any idea.
We would sometimes smoke a joint and sit in a temple. He would talk about who we are and our significance in the universe. These issues were important to him. I wish I has spent more time with him. I barely saw him after the all the hoopla of Bandit Queen was over. But then who knew he would go so early ?

A film of less doubt and more courage : Bandit Queen

From Deepak :”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 ?”
Thank you Deepak. I always say Bandit Queen is my most honest film in that I just did not allow anything to come between the ‘moment’ and the film. It took courage and sheer obstinacy too. For holding on to my instinct for dear life and shooting so fast that no one had time for doubt. Not even myself. Often thinking too much will cause more doubt and less courage. Partly it was the actors complete faith in what I asked them to do and also in their ability to invent their roles in their own identity. The ravines of Chambal spoke to me constantly and being and living in the harsh environment itself forced an act of adventure that became both challenging and exciting. It was guerrilla film making at it’s most adventurous.
And last not least – this as an ode to the greatest and the most underestimated Director of Photography I know – Ashok Mehta, who’s courage and energy was boundless and from whom I learned much of my visual instincts from. The very same visual style that I adapted for the Elizabeth films

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 – director’s commentary

As they are re releasing the DVD of Bandit Queen in the UK. I decided to do an extensive director’s commentary on it. And I sat there and cried as I watched the film after almost 10 years. What happened to the director Shekhar Kapur ? Where did he get lost ? Bandit Queen has such subtext, such detail, such an emotional and innovative way of telling a strong story. Without having to resort to great directorial flourishes. The actors were great, probably the best I ever had. Ashok Mehta, the DP was great, and I rue the fact that he and I never worked together again. The editing was so acute and incisive, and unfortunately Renu Saluja died far too young. In fact wherever she and I disagreed, she was right, as I can see in the film now. The Music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was so evocative and emotional withput being intrusive. Almost spiritual. And he died too young.
Why ? Because I worked completely in synch with the writing. with the music, with filming, wit the actors. We were all one team tethered to each other. Because there were no creative pressures from above. Because this was my most instinctual film. Because i did not try and prove anything to anyone. Just shot the film from the heart . And the film was made in utmost humility. Why ? Because all of us worked in trust, in faith and towards a common vision Will I be able to bring that humility back to PAANI ? God, I hope so. If I am half the director that I was in Bandit Queen, PAANI should be a wonderful film. Please try and hear the director’s commentary on Bandit Queen. I promise you, it will be worth it.

The Gang Rape Scene in Bandit Queen

Udayan asked : When I watched Bandit queen and perticularly the scene where She was being gang raped. I almost throwed up during that scene and took me about a week to get over it. How did you managed to film that scene? I mean the intensity that you put into that scene simply can’t be just direction!


The Editor of Bandit Queen

Renu Saluja, who edited Bandit Queen died a few years after, still very young. She was one of the best editors in India. The Film and Television Institute of India is paying a tribute to her. Here is mine …