Friday, April 22, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Bandit Queen (1994) 1h 59m

On Sunday, 24 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh plunges headlong into an arresting world of contemptible authority and sympathetic law-breakers, *Bandit Queen*, starring Seema Biswas and written and directed by Sakhbar Kapur.

Among aspiring fiction writers it is very often said that ‘heroes have motivations, while villains have backstories’. And it’s a sneaky-impactful aphorism, insofar as the implied distinction so clearly comes down to whether the character in question can bring him- or herself to let the past be the past and just move on. Those who can, go on to the channel their ugly pasts into a constructive impetus for the betterment of all—their “character-building” experience as literal as anything in literature. 

Cue the entrance of one of the most driven and iconoclastic characters in modern history, Phoolan Devi: the real-life woman who really did just about single-handedly kick over one of the most brutally misogynistic patriarchies on the planet, that of rural India in the 1970s and 80s. A figure of pluck, vengeance, audacity, all but unbearable pathos, and ultimately of one of the least probable redemptions of all time. Cue the rule-defying movie about her harrowing path to that redemption, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. 

Regardless of medium or adaptive license, Phoolan Devi is not a figure whose story would suit the little kids at bedtime, to be sure. From forced betrothal at age eleven (and from exactly the sort of treatment one may imagine with only that much news to go on), Devi’s journey proceeds through a withering chronicle of false flight, violent reversals, shocking police misconduct, caste-based humiliation, banishment, bloody double-crosses, and extra-legal justice. 

In time her unique combination of self-galvanizing purpose and ever-higher-profile escape will come to earn her the legendary status of heroic outlaws, particularly among a cohort of impoverished rural women whose own heartbreaking backstories had robbed them of similar empowerment. Indeed in watching the film for the first time not long ago, I was reminded of what David Sedaris once wrote about a comically over-distressed cashmere sweater in his closet: “Because it is destroyed, it is indestructible.” So too the stunning life of Phoolan Devi. 

The challenge that this simple reality presented for domestic movie-adaptation was so basic as to be almost deal-breaking, with Indian cinematic tradition so deeply antithetical to the unflinching and relentless grit that Phoolan Devi’s tale demands. There are no sappy song-and-dance numbers to chase the gunplay from the screen. There is only a life, here and now, set before us on the rails of an unsinkable ideologue’s ferocity in fighting City Hall. 

We take our seats expecting the typical Indian film experience—a saffron Andrew Lloyd Webber—and what we get is a saffron Lars Von Trier. Complete with that same peculiar gift for folding our judgements about visceral gratuity back in our own laps for the sociopolitical accusation that they are. Make no mistake, Bandit Queen is not a happy-go-lucky romp through fields of brightly-clad backup singers and star-crossed romantic entanglements. But it just might be, indeed probably is, the most important movie we’ve yet seen. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us at 6:30pm on Sunday 24 April for this stunningly impactful motion picture. We really and truly have taken in nothing remotely like it in our filmography thus far. 

No comments: