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Bandit Queen: A Controversial and Critically Acclaimed Biopic of Phoolan Devi


Bandit Queen is a 1994 Indian biographical film based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a notorious female bandit who later became a member of parliament. Directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Seema Biswas as Phoolan Devi, the film depicts her brutal and tragic journey from a child bride to a rebel leader to a political icon. The film won several national and international awards, including the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Movie. However, it also faced a lot of controversy and criticism for its graphic scenes of rape, violence, and nudity, as well as its alleged inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Phoolan Devi's life. In this article, I will argue that Bandit Queen is a powerful and important film that challenges the social and gender norms of Indian society.


The Life and Legend of Phoolan Devi

Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in a poor lower-caste family in Uttar Pradesh. At the age of 11, she was married off to a much older man who abused her physically and sexually. She ran away from him several times but was rejected by her own family and community. She was also subjected to harassment, molestation, and rape by upper-caste men who exploited her vulnerability and low status. She eventually joined a gang of bandits led by Vikram Mallah, who treated her with respect and love. After he was killed by another gang leader named Babu Gujjar, who also raped Phoolan Devi along with his men, she took over Vikram's gang and swore revenge against Babu Gujjar and his allies. She became known as the Bandit Queen for her daring raids, kidnappings, murders, and looting of upper-caste villages. She also became a folk hero for the lower castes and women who saw her as a symbol of resistance and justice.

In 1983, after two years of being hunted by the police and rival gangs, Phoolan Devi surrendered to the authorities in exchange for a promise of leniency. She spent 11 years in jail, during which she was charged with 48 crimes, including murder, robbery, and kidnapping. She was also accused of being involved in the 1981 Behmai massacre, where she allegedly killed 22 upper-caste men in retaliation for her gang rape. She denied any role in the massacre and claimed that she was not present at the scene. In 1994, she was released on parole after the state government withdrew all charges against her. She then entered politics and joined the Samajwadi Party, a regional party that advocated for the rights of the lower castes and minorities. She won two consecutive elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, from the Mirzapur constituency in Uttar Pradesh. She championed the causes of the poor, the oppressed, and the women, and became a popular and influential leader. However, she also faced opposition and hostility from her enemies and rivals, who feared her charisma and popularity. In 2001, she was shot dead by masked gunmen outside her residence in New Delhi. The killers were allegedly hired by Sher Singh Rana, a upper-caste man who claimed to avenge the Behmai massacre. Phoolan Devi's death sparked a wave of grief and anger among her supporters and admirers. She was cremated with full state honors and her funeral was attended by thousands of people. She is still remembered as a legendary figure who defied the odds and fought for her dignity and rights.

The Making and Reception of Bandit Queen

Bandit Queen was inspired by the book India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, written by the Indian-born British journalist Mala Sen. The director Shekhar Kapur read the book and was fascinated by Phoolan Devi's story. He decided to make a film based on the book, with the cooperation and consent of Mala Sen. He cast Seema Biswas, a relatively unknown actress at that time, as Phoolan Devi, after auditioning several other actresses. He also cast Nirmal Pandey as Vikram Mallah, Manoj Bajpayee as Babu Gujjar, and Govind Namdev as Shri Ram, among others. The film was shot in various locations in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, with a budget of about Rs 2.5 crore (about $350,000). The film faced many challenges and difficulties during its production and release. It was banned by the Indian Censor Board for its explicit depiction of rape, violence, and nudity. It was also opposed by various groups and individuals who claimed that it violated the dignity and privacy of Phoolan Devi, distorted the facts of her life, glorified violence and crime, and hurt the sentiments of certain castes and communities. The film was also involved in several legal battles, including a lawsuit filed by Phoolan Devi herself, who disowned the film and demanded a ban on its release. She alleged that she was not consulted or compensated by the filmmakers, and that they had misrepresented her life and character. She also said that she felt humiliated and traumatized by watching the film. The film was eventually released in India in 1996, after several cuts and modifications were made by the Censor Board.

The film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike. Some praised it for its powerful and realistic portrayal of Phoolan Devi's life and struggle, its bold and uncompromising style, its brilliant direction and performance, and its social and political relevance. Some of the positive reviews came from Roger Ebert, who gave the film four out of four stars and called it "an extraordinary film, a powerful and moving experience", and from The New York Times, which described the film as "a harrowing, fiercely impassioned epic". However, some criticized it for its excessive and gratuitous violence, its sensationalism and melodrama, its lack of nuance and balance, and its questionable authenticity and accuracy. Some of the negative reviews came from The Hindu, which slammed the film as "a crude and vulgar distortion of Phoolan Devi's life", and from Outlook, which dismissed the film as "a shoddy piece of work that exploits Phoolan Devi's misery". The film also had a mixed response from the audiences, who were either moved or repulsed by the film's graphic and disturbing scenes. The film was a moderate success at the box office, earning about Rs 10 crore (about $1.4 million) in India and about $4 million worldwide.

The Themes and Messages of Bandit Queen

Bandit Queen is a film that explores various themes and messages that are relevant and important for the Indian society and culture. Some of the main themes and messages are: - Caste oppression: The film shows how the caste system in India creates a hierarchy of power and privilege that oppresses and exploits the lower castes, especially the Dalits or the untouchables. The film depicts how Phoolan Devi and her family are discriminated against, humiliated, and abused by the upper-caste landlords, police, and politicians. The film also exposes how the caste system perpetuates violence, injustice, and inequality in the society. - Gender violence: The film portrays how women in India are subjected to various forms of violence, such as rape, domestic abuse, child marriage, dowry harassment, honor killing, and female infanticide. The film depicts how Phoolan Devi is repeatedly raped by different men throughout her life, starting from her husband to her captors to her enemies. The film also shows how she is denied her agency, dignity, and rights as a woman by the patriarchal norms and values of the society. - Revenge: The film explores how revenge is a powerful motive that drives Phoolan Devi to become a bandit leader and a vigilante. The film depicts how she seeks revenge against those who have wronged her, especially Babu Gujjar and his gang, who raped her brutally. The film also shows how she exacts revenge on behalf of other lower-caste people and women who have suffered similar atrocities. The film raises questions about the morality and consequences of revenge, as well as its effectiveness in achieving justice. - Justice: The film examines how justice is a elusive and relative concept that depends on one's perspective and situation. The film shows how Phoolan Devi and her followers view themselves as the agents of justice, who fight against the oppression and injustice of the upper castes and the state. The film also shows how the upper castes and the state view Phoolan Devi and her followers as the criminals and outlaws, who disrupt the law and order of the society. The film questions the legitimacy and impartiality of the formal justice system, which is often biased and corrupt. The film also explores the alternative forms of justice, such as vigilante justice, restorative justice, and social justice, that Phoolan Devi and her supporters seek and practice. - Empowerment: The film illustrates how empowerment is a process of gaining control and confidence over one's life and destiny. The film depicts how Phoolan Devi transforms from a victim to a survivor to a leader, who overcomes her trauma and challenges her oppressors. The film also depicts how she empowers other lower-caste people and women, who join her cause and follow her example. The film celebrates the empowerment of Phoolan Devi as a woman, a Dalit, and a human being.


Bandit Queen is a film that tells the remarkable story of Phoolan Devi, a woman who rose from the ashes of her suffering and became a legend in her own right. The film is a controversial and critically acclaimed masterpiece that challenges the social and gender norms of Indian society. The film portrays the harsh realities of caste oppression, gender violence, revenge, justice, and empowerment in India. The film also raises important questions about the nature and meaning of these concepts for different people and groups. Bandit Queen is a film that deserves to be watched and appreciated by anyone who is interested in the history, culture, and politics of India.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and learned something new about Bandit Queen. If you have not seen the film yet, I highly recommend you to watch it as soon as possible. You will not regret it. If you have seen the film already, I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions about it. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me through my email address. Thank you for your time and attention.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Bandit Queen:

  • Where can I watch Bandit Queen online?

Bandit Queen is available on various streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Hotstar. You can also buy or rent the DVD or Blu-ray from online or offline stores.

  • Is Bandit Queen based on a true story?

Bandit Queen is based on the book India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi by Mala Sen, which is a biographical account of Phoolan Devi's life. However, the film is not a faithful adaptation of the book or the reality. The film has made several changes, additions, omissions, and dramatizations to suit its narrative and artistic vision. The film has also been criticized by Phoolan Devi herself and others for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

  • What is the meaning of the title Bandit Queen?

The title Bandit Queen refers to the nickname given to Phoolan Devi by the media and the public for her role as a female bandit leader in India. The title also implies her status as a queen among her followers and admirers, who respected her authority and admired her courage.

  • What is the message of Bandit Queen?

The message of Bandit Queen is that no one can break the spirit of a woman who fights for her dignity and rights. The film also conveys that caste oppression and gender violence are serious problems that need to be addressed and eradicated in India.

  • Who killed Phoolan Devi?

Phoolan Devi was killed by Sher Singh Rana, a upper-caste man who claimed to avenge the Behmai massacre. He was arrested and convicted for her murder in 2014. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Delhi court.



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