by guest contributor Thea, originally published at Shameless Blog
Research. It always gets you into trouble. This review was supposed to say “Empowering! Feminist! Realism! Actually Tough Women of Colour!”. But then I did a little googling, (damn you google!) and now I’m confused.
The movie Bandit Queen is based on the story of the real life Phoolan Devi. In the 80’s in India, Devi led groups of bandits to pillage high caste villages for money. She was notorious and fearsome, and this was a big, shocking, deal – not only was she a woman, she was a low caste woman.
A kind of Robin Hood with a gender twist: at 11 Devi was married to a 30-something man who raped and mistreated her. As an adult she found him and stabbed him in front of his village, as a warning for old men who marry young girls.
Devi was always described to me as a hero for poor people and women. Separate from who she actually was, Devi became a legend and a symbol of the one woman who just wasn’t going to take it anymore. She was tough shit! She was brutalised, pushed around and dehumanised by patriarchal culture (more on that later) – but she actually pushed back!
So a movie about the life of this feminist hero – ok, the violence she committed makes her a problematic feminist hero – would definitely be a feminist movie wouldn’t you say? Well, this is where the confusion kicks in.
What I liked most about this movie was how it is such an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of life for women in a patriarchal culture. The violence against women in Bandit Queen is essentially constant and blatant (I didn’t say it was a fun movie to watch), but that amazed me. Because the movie seems to be saying, look, it’s not just that some men are bad apples, and it’s not just that women will experience gender violence once in their lives. It’s that under a patriarchal system the threat of violence and the incidence of violence against women is constant and total.
For example, often “rapists” and “wife beaters” in North American cinema are portrayed as dirty, creepy, foul-smelling and poor. The men who assualt Devi in Bandit Queen however, are just regular, average men. This seemed to say to me that, it’s not just lower income men who don’t wash their shirts who are capable of violence, it’s all men who’ve been socialised by rampant sexism.
BUT, that’s exactly the problem with Bandit Queen: the constant gender violence. Arundhati Roy argues here and here that Bandit Queen reduces Devi to a rape victim, and is just two hours of rape, rape and more rape.
It seems there was a lot of sexual violence in Devi’s life. According to the (deeply contested) movie, she was sold by her father, raped by her husband, nearly raped and then sexually humiliated by the headmen in her village, gang raped by the police, raped by the head of the bandits, and then gang raped by a village of men for 3 days.
But the question of how to responsibly represent rape in cinema is one that has enraged and puzzled people for eons. I would sum it up but my friend bell hooks (ok, I guess it would be more accurate to call her my idol) does it better in this youtube clip from her video Cultural Criticism and Transformation (she starts talking about rape around 3 minutes into the clip).
Inga Muscio in Cunt has this to say:
One out of eight movies produced in Hollywood contains a rape scene. In American cinema, rape scenes tend to be violently eroticized…when viewing a rape scene, scads of men feel confused and disgusted with themselves if it turns them on. (p. 161 of the 2nd edition, if you want to read along)
Interestingly in the same section, Muscio sites Bandit Queen as a movie that responsibly deals with rape. I would agree with Muscio, except for one big issue: Devi, the real Devi, did not want Bandit Queen to be made. She disputed the accuracy of the film and even threatened to set herself on fire outside the theater if it was screened.
In an article written after Devi was shot and killed in 2001, Indira Jaisingh, who represented Devi in court when she sued the filmmakers of Bandit Queen said:
[Devi] did not admit she had been gang-raped. This was one incident in her life she did not want to talk about. She just glossed over it. And what was Bandit Queen all about? Rape is not entertainment… that is what we were trying to say…Phoolan Devi did not want to talk about her rape.
On top of this, it seems that Devi was swindled out of the rights to her life – she signed a contract in prison agreeing to let Mala Sen write a book about her, which later formed the basis for the movie, but she was paid a very small sum, and the contract was in English – Devi could not speak English.
Shekhar Kapur, the director of Bandit Queen, according to the Sunday Observer, had no interest in meeting Phoolan Devi herself. He did not feel the need to meet her.
I would argue that the ultimate basis of violence against women is the silencing of the voices of women. What does it mean that, in making the film Kapur – who is a man, highly educated and wealthy, while Devi was none of those things – was essentially silencing Devi?
The confusingest thing about Bandit Queen to me is that in and of itself, I would say it is a fine movie, and definitely a feminist one. But can you critique a movie about a real life person in and of itself, especially if the real life person didn’t want it made?
While Devi eventually did agree to have the movie released, the question holds: if Devi felt completely disempowered by the movie, can it still be empowering for women who watch it? If a feminist movie was made in a very un-feminist way, is it still feminist?