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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Sam Ashman


Caste aside


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Bandit Queen is a film about the life of Phoolan Devi – a low caste Indian woman who fought back against her oppression and became a hero for thousands of lower caste Hindus in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s.

It tells her story of an arranged marriage at the age of 11, her repeated rape by upper caste bandits, her resistance and the eventual formation of her own gang. It shows how she surrendered to the police in 1983, on her terms, to the cheers of thousands.

The film has provoked a storm of controversy and its director, Shekhar Kapur, has been under virtual house arrest since its release. But he is uncompromising about his motives.

‘I wanted to make people angry,’ he says. ‘I was angry and extremely disturbed by this story. When Channel 4 firs tasked me to produce this film I said no. But then they sent me the proofs of Mala Sen’s book and that gave me the idea of using Phoolan Devi’s story to tell the larger story of the caste system in India.

‘I was also angry because I have lived in India so long and I didn’t do anything. I am as guilty as anybody else. These things are happening every day. They are in the papers all the time. Being a film maker I realised that I could make a difference.

‘I wanted the audience to feel the same anger that I had felt. So I set out to deliberately provoke that kind of rage and not to intellectualise.

‘I wanted to use the one case to make a larger point,that this is general, this is a consequence of the system. It is about how women are looked upon and treated. I knew at the time that if I did it there would be trouble. The story has been done before. But I decided to try to make a film about the caste system.

‘I wanted to show how it operates, the fact that it is omnipresent. Whatever happens in India, somewhere the caste system has a presence. Caste is very oppressive. It is wrong for 20 percent of the population to oppress 80 percent of the people. It is also economic, because it gives the 20 percent the 80 percent as cheap labour. Low castes know that whatever they do in their life their lot will not better. People live out their lives without hope.’

Caste divisions come across clearly in the film, but what does Shekhar Kapur think about rich and poor in India, class divisions?

‘The two are not the same but they are very mixed up,’he says. ‘The caste system is an economic system with a religious sanction. The lower castes do the menial jobs, do not own land, banks will not lend them money.

‘If you walk into an Indian village you know which are the lower caste houses. The lower castes are skinnier and darker because they work more in the fields, the higher castes are heavier. It’s a hierarchy, even in this film there are many different castes. The gang is divided by caste. Phoolan Devi is raped by men of different castes.’

Shekhar thinks there is a role for serious, popular films in India alongside the mass entertainment industry known as Bollywood.

‘I have tried consciously not to turn Phoolan Devi into a myth otherwise there is no sense of reality. It is very interesting what the media said about her. Before she surrendered nobody knew what she looked like. They talked about this beautiful woman with light eyes, lightish coloured hair, tall, with a beautiful singing voice. It was rumoured that when she went to raid a village she used to stand there and sing and mesmerise the people while the gang would raid the houses.

‘It is nonsense. She hardly ever raided villages. Most of the time gangs survive by kidnapping and ransoming the children of upper caste families. When she surrendered she was a small, average-looking woman and the Indian press never forgave her for that. Immediately from being a beautiful legend going around and fighting for her rights after being raped, she became an ordinary everyday killer because she didn’t physically live up to the myth.’

Among the critics of Shekhar Kapur’s film are some feminists in India who have said the film insults Phoolan, and Indian women, by showing rape scenes and so invading her ‘sexual privacy’.

‘Yes I do invade her sexual privacy,’ he says. ‘I was very conscious of that. What else could I have done? I don’t want viewers to be objective. I am attacking the values of the society that surround rape. The more honest you get, the worse it’s going to be.

‘But I think I am being attacked by people who are not worried about me violating Phoolan’s modesty, they are worried about their own – the sort of people who sit there knowing this is going on and comfortably intellectualising and not doing anything about it.

Bandit Queen is currently banned in India. The government says the film will provoke rioting and violence. I don’t think that, but it will make people angry. One of the reasons they have banned this film is because they don’t want it shown before the elections that are coming up. But it’s become the hottest underground video. I hope it will help change things.’

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