B'wood Baatein: Upper caste brutality remains unchanged 28 years after 'Bandit Queen' was released

Nothing has changed since ‘Bandit Queen’ was released. The brutality of the upper castes, driving the disempowered section into acts of horrific violence, remains a burning issue in our country

Phoolan Devi afetr she became an MP
Phoolan Devi afetr she became an MP

Subhash K Jha

When Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen was released on January 26, 1994 it immediately became a talking point. It was a searing harrowing nightmarish portrait of oppression brutality and revenge powered by Seema Biswas’ towering performance as Phoolan Devi.

Nothing that she did thereafter could match up to her Phoolan act, although she was as good if not better in Deepa Mehta’s Water and Dilip Mehta’s Cooking With Stella.

Revisiting Bandit Queen is like meeting up with an old aunt known to tell the truth even if it hurts the hell out of you. Nothing has changed since Bandit Queen was released. The brutality of the upper caste, driving the disempowered section into acts of horrific violence, remains a burning issue in our country.

I remember the real Phoolan Devi hated the film. It reminded her of the trauma, the emotional and sexual violation she had faced. Kapoor’s film remains as raw and wounding as it was meant to be.

“For me as a director the most overpowering film I made was Bandit Queen,” Shekhar told me some time ago. It is according to me Shekhar’s masterpiece much superior to the overrated Mr India or even Elizabeth. Bandit Queen is the mother of cinema on oppression, subjugation and caste politics, and remains a gut-wrenching experience 28 years after it was completed. Brutal in its critique of upper caste arrogance, unsparing in its contempt for Brahminical superiority, and starkly candid in using rape as a tool of oppression and disempowerment, this film comes from a place of great anger.

Seema Biswas in 'Bandit Queen'
Seema Biswas in 'Bandit Queen'

Shekhar admits he was seething in rage when he made the film. His anger remains undiminished as he finds the privileged class in India flaunting its wealth in the face of the socio-economically backward classes.

Phoolan Devi’s repeated rape by the provincial politician Govind Namdeo was shot like a graphic uninterrupted nightmare, a nightmare without the comfort of knowing the victim would walk out of it. The rape sequences were raw, graphic and horrific. Director Shekhar Kapoor stripped the act of rape of all titillation. All we saw was the humiliation and horror. Shekhar said that by showing unattractive male nudity he wanted to strip the act of rape of all titillation. This film showed rape in the most non-provocative repulsive light.

Bandit Queen was a turning point not just in Seema’s career but also in the way Indian cinema perceived its women characters. The film threatened to typecast Seema in bandit/rape victim roles. She told me she didn’t know how to get out of it.

“I am an actor. All I wanted to do is act. I’ve never thought about career strategy or how to take my talent forward. I never bothered with cultivating an image. I was a diehard theatre actress trying to focus on my acting, nothing else. But when after Bandit Queen I was offered Manisha Koirala’s mother’s role in Khamoshi: The Musical I was warned by well-wishers, even seniors from NSD advised against doing it,” says Seema.

“I took up Khamoshi because it was a complete departure from Bandit Queen. I had to prove myself.” Regrettably both the films typecast Seema.

“After the release of Bandit Queen I was offered innumerable dacoit roles. I turned them all down. And after Khamoshi I started getting Anil Kapoor’s and Aamir Khan’s mother’s roles. I had no problems with that. But I wanted the script. Producers were shocked. ‘Na shakal na soorat and she wants a script!’ I could see their disbelief and contempt. ‘But we’re offering you Amitabh Bachchan’s mother’s role!’ I didn’t mind playing anyone’s mother as long as I knew my character’s graph.”

Rather than do repetitions of Bandit Queen and Khamoshi, Seema chose to stay away from films for nearly two years. She says that getting challenging roles remains an abiding challenge.

“It can be very frustrating. Deepa Mehta is one director who has given me my dues. I did Water with her in 2004 and now I’ve done Midnight’s Children. But repetitive roles are death to me as an actor. I’d rather do theatre. Sorry I can’t play the buffer-mother keeping the hero and his father apart from each other’s throat.”

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines