BR: Bandit Queen (1995)

April 9, 2015 | By


BanditQueen_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  January 20, 2015

Genre:  Biography / Drama

Synopsis: Visceral bio-drama of Phoolan Devi, the gang leader who became a folk hero for lower caste Indians for stealing from the rich, protecting the poor, and heading a massacre in revenge for a brutal gang rape.

Special Features:  2008 Audio Commentary with director Shekhar Kapur / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




20 years since its release, Shekhar Kapur’s bio-drama on the life of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) is still a gut-wrenching experience, capturing the absolutely horrible life of a young girl sold and married off by her lower caste family at the age of 11, abducted as a teen by thugs hired to mete out punishment for defending herself against village rapists, and as a young woman eventually heading her own gang that raided rich quarters for valuables.

Devi eventually used her power to exact revenge on men who committed a brutal gang rape supervised by an upper-caste leader, Mustaquim (Rajesh Vivek), massacring suspects in a small village and becoming a fugitive before surrendering in a staged media event. After spending roughly a decade in prison, Devi’s conviction was overturned, and in spite of no formal schooling, she became a member of India’s parliament. Into her second term as an elected official, Devi was assassinated in 2001 in what’s assumed to be a reverse-revenge killing for the massacre.

Kapur’s audio commentary, recorded specifically for the 2008 Region 2 DVD and ported over by Twilight Time, is mandatory listening because it contextualizes the horrific events that unfold in this admittedly dramatized narrative which Devi reportedly sought to have banned until she realized the film had become both a box office sensation and a valuable tool in bringing attention to the brutal treatment of women in insular communities.

Kapur’s intentions weren’t to make an epic rape-revenge movie, but it is a potent statement on a system where social status – the antiquated caste system – and traditions carried over from an ancient, antiquated era have no business in modern society, and yet thrive due to ongoing power struggles between two factions: the minority upper class with political and financial power, and the larger lower class forced to rely on the former for any tangible changes.

In Kapur’s film, Devi’s life forms a perfect arc in which abuse is used to keep a lower caste woman in her ‘place’ and when she fights back, rape is applied to ensure the she’s physical and psychologically broken, and rendered inert. The problem is regardless of whatever horrors were inflicted upon her, Devi refused to give up, and it’s remarkable she managed to remain a functional person. (When Kapur eventually met Devi, he sensed a shifting state of schizophrenia.)

When she fell in love with gang leader Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey) who threatened the position of kingpin Mustaquim, the latter ordered the former killed, and Devi was gang-raped to ensure she would be reduced to a tattered rag; the almost unwatchable assault is dramatized as a 3 day ordeal, but in real life Devi was assaulted over 2 weeks.

While there are small moments of warmth and humour within Kapur’s film (most stem from her often comedic relationship with a supportive cousin), this is a dour story with no happy ending, save for a sense that Devi represented a very real threat to a sedate establishment that was caught off guard by the rage that could erupt from the ranks of the poor. Devi’s succession to parliament may have represented a small change or compromise, but her death perhaps validated the power that could be drummed up among the poor and become a thorn in backside of powerful political figures.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous transfer licensed from Britain’s Channel 4 Films (other licensed releases include Resurrected, Fever Pitch and Rita, Sue and Bob Too) with a potent Dolby 2.0 surround mix. Kapur’s commentary is non-stop – he’s a fount of anecdotes and production facts – and covers virtually every facet of the film’s genesis, production, and release. Kapur’s background includes acting and directing, and there’s no doubt the power of Bandit Queen made him a natural to helm the historical bio-drama Elizabeth (1998). As he revisits this breakthrough film, though – shot on film with practical effects, and breaking conventional rules of camera movements and editing – Kapur feels he’s being beckoned to step away from the bloated Hollywood epics that followed and return to the films and themes of his prior work. (As of this writing, however, that hasn’t happened, as Kapur’s theatrical output has been surprisingly slim.)

In addition to an excellent essay from Julie Jirgo, TT’s release also comes with an isolated score track – a real treat, as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music (co-composed with Roger White) is a restrained yet powerful application of Sufi voices and percussion textures. His singing captures the layers of pain and fleeting moments of peace in Devi’s life, and the dimensions of the film would’ve been far less affecting without Khan’s exceptional music.

Contrary to the iconic poster art and title that imparts a sense of action and adventure, Bandit Queen is a stark, unwavering criticism of rotten behaviour; it’s first and foremost a drama, and a bold statement by filmmakers whose outrage is sadly still relevant in other lands.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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