April 12, 2007

Bandit Queen

Let me start by telling you that I am really, really not the type to turn a movie off in the middle, especially not because I am finding it too disturbing. I've watched a lot of very disturbing movies, and only once before have I ever needed to leave the room or turn off the film (Kids, oddly enough). But I turned off Bandit Queen an hour in. Even though I knew it would have gotten better, I knew there would have been some redemption, I just couldn't watch it anymore.

Bandit Queen is the true story of the life of Phoolan Devi, a poor rural Indian woman who became a notorious bandit and later an Indian MP. Well, it's kind of the true story. Devi herself had massive problems with the film version of her life and fought to get it banned in India. But it is at least loosely based on her life. And my friends, her life, at least up to age 20 or so when I gave up on the movie, sucked.

There were no less than five rapes in the first hour of this movie. All perpetrated by different men, all upon Phoolan Devi. And I just couldn't watch it anymore. There was a great rape avenging scene just before I turned it off, wherein Devi beats (to death?) her first rapist (the man who married her as an 11 year-old girl) with a gun butt, screaming that this is what she does to men who marry children. But it just wasn't enough to steel me for her lover's murder and another rape in the next scene. And so off it went.

So, how can I review a film I didn't finish watching? Well, not very fairly. Though I know what happened in Devi's life, and it's a phenomenal story, I never got to that point in the film. All I saw, basically, was an hour of Devi being brutalized. And it is brutal. I've watched a lot of film rapes (hard not to have, if you watch movies, I'm afraid to say), and this is some of the most horrendous violence I've seen. It's not just that it's graphic, but it's just constant and dirty and horrible. The film begins with Devi being married off at 11, and it goes downhill from there.

And I guess that brings up a question that is worth our thought and discussion here at Heroine Content--how does one responsibly portray violence, particularly rape, in cinema? In the case of this film, the rapes were not added to thicken the plot--they really happened--but did they need to be shown in such a way as to leave me unable to finish the movie? What purpose did that serve? Did the filmmakers (director Shekhar Kapur, who also directed Elizabeth and writers Ranjit Kapoor and Mala Sen) really need to show all those rapes? Did portraying Phoolan as an ultimate victim in the film's first hour somehow magnify her (I assume) glory in the film's second hour? Does a woman have to be a victim to be legitimized as a bandit?

Turns out I'm not the first person to ask these questions about this movie. Shortly after the film was released, Indian writer Arundhati Roy weighed in on it. And later she had a bit more to say. Roy points out that director Kapur didn't even want to meet Devi, who was still in prison when he made the film. "It didn't matter to Shekhar Kapur who Phoolan Devi really was," she writes. "What kind of person she was. She was a woman, wasn't she? She was raped wasn't she? So what did that make her? A Raped Woman! You've seen one, you've seen 'em all." She goes on to argue that the film, while claiming to be "Truth," picks and chooses the parts of Devi's life it portrays, making it a story not about Phoolan Devi, a specific woman with a specific life's story, but about a worthy rape victim. She writes:

According to Shekhar Kapur's film, every landmark - every decision, every turning-point in Phoolan Devi's life, starting with how she became a dacoit in the first place, has to do with having been raped, or avenging rape. He has just blundered through her life like a Rape-diviner. You cannot but sense his horrified fascination at the havoc that a wee willie can wreak. It's a sort of reversed male self absorption. Rape is the main dish. Caste is the sauce that it swims in.

After reading Roy's take on the film, I honestly can't say I'm sorry I turned it off during the "centerpiece" gang rape. It may be that I didn't miss much by not seeing the end after all. Roy goes out to point out that one of the biggest injustices Phoolan Devi faced, the hysterectomy she was given without her consent while she was in prison, doesn't even make it into the notes at the end of the film. "When it comes to getting bums on seats," she writes, "hysterectomy just doesn't measure up to rape."

The problems Roy points out about this film are problems in many films featuring women who have been raped or otherwise victimized. The women themselves, what they do before and after these instances of victimization, cease to matter. They cease to be people, but instead are just victims. Roy questions of Bandit Queen's filmmakers "What is she to them? A concept? Or just a cunt?" And the question is valid here, and to the makers of biopics like Monster and fictional dramas like Dogville, where women cease to be full people and are forced into the role of avenging rape victim, regardless of whether it fits. Maybe it sounds like a broken record for me to write this, but we can, we have to, do better than that. When the subject of rape is taken up in a film, it has to be treated with the seriousness and outrage it deserves, but women who have been raped do not cease to be women. The rest of their lives do not cease to matter. Taking a fantastic, unbelievable story about a woman and making it into a flat, deadening story about a rape victim is wrong, and it's a horrible way to portray women. We are not the sum total of our victimization.

Other commentary:


You have to wonder, at what point are the filmmakers showing rape(s) just for entertainment purposes? How many rapes does the audience need to see to establish that this woman was raped, and that rape is bad? I think one would pretty much cover that.

When I was in film school, we were constantly told that movies need sex. It was never stated, but understood (due to the conflation of consensual and non-consensual sex) that rape was an acceptable antidote for "good script" that "just needs a little more sex".

That said, I think in this case Grace and Roy have nailed the problem: this is not a film about a woman. If it had been, you could convey how she'd been affected by rape in about five minutes with no rape footage at all. This is a film about men. What they can do to women, what women can do despite men, what women do because of men. It's All About Men.

The other thing it does it remove the wider good from Devi's motivation: she's no longer presented as fighting for anyone else, as she would be with caste-justice.

Instead, the only thing she does for the good of the people is surrender at the end.



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