Bandit Queen is a feminist's worst nightmare: a lollapalooza of women being sold into marriage, beaten, raped, kicked, shot at, and thrown in the mud. Amplifying the violent misogyny is the unshakable sense among the film's male characters (with one exception) that men are entitled to treat women any way they like. Especially impudent women. And the protagonist of Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), is indeed a saucy young lady.

The movie, directed by Shekhar Kapur and written by Mala Sen, tells the true story of a young, lower-caste woman who becomes one of India's most infamous outlaws. Its stridency — about men and women, caste, justice — overwhelms every finer detail in its path, and because the story is lashed to the mast of fact, it loses the unpredictability that would have given it three dimensions. The result is a steady bleat, like someone leaning on a car horn in the middle of the night.

Bandit Queen looks and feels almost medieval — there are virtually no cars, no telephones, no running water, just clay villages baking in the dusty sun — but the movie opens in 1968, as 10-year-old Phoolan is sold off for marriage by her parents.

The man who buys the girl to be his wife is small potatoes in the movie's epic panorama of male villainy, but he does slap her around when she mouths off. Next minute he's trying to seduce her, even though he recognizes she's “still not ripe.”

But Phoolan isn't just tart-tongued. She's got guts, too, and she grows up even faster than her awful husband wants. She arranges for a cousin to take her away to a gang in the hills. In the matter of sexual politics, the gangsters are not more enlightened than the general population, with the exception of a handsome, dark-eyed man named Vikram (Nirmal Pandey). Vikram is also lower-caste, and he, too, has guts: When he sees a higher-up raping Phoolan, he redefines the phrase coitus interruptus by shooting the offender dead.

For a time after this killing, Vikram's stock is high, and he assumes leadership of the gang. Phoolan becomes his “bandit queen” and lover. With his help she seeks out her husband and, after tying him to a stake on a bleak hilltop, beats him to death in between screams that turn her face red and chafe her lungs. Vikram somberly tells her that it's better to kill 20 men than just one; if you kill just one, he says, they'll hang you, but if you kill 20, you'll be a legend and they'll beg you to surrender.

For a brief time, Vikram and Phoolan glory in their triumphs and in each other. But Vikram's higher-ups in the local gang hierarchy, the Thakurs, are unimpressed by him. So far as they're concerned, he was not born to lead. Moreover, their leader, Sri Ram (Govind Namdeo), fancies Phoolan. When she and Vikram are together by a river, someone shoots him. He survives, thanks to Phoolan's rushing him to a city hospital, but the shooting is not a good sign.

Another meeting between the two, on a high promontory, is interrupted by a shot, and again Vikram keels over, this time for good. Phoolan goes bananas and forms her own gang, vowing revenge on the Thakurs. She gets word that Sri Ram will be attending a wedding in a nearby village. With a rifle-armed posse she shows up, but she can't find him.

Either the Thakur men genuinely don't know where Sri Ram is, or they cannot imagine a woman being dangerous. Phoolan shows them otherwise. In a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the climax of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, she and her gang waste the Thakur men, 24 in all. They twitch and fall against a wall splashed with sun and blood.

But Sri Ram escapes the slaughter, and because he is a government informer, the police and the military soon become involved. The government kills gang members by the dozens in a lethal pincers maneuver intended to bring Phoolan in alive.

Bandit Queen wants to be a condemnation of a social arrangement — the caste system — in which the male habit of treating women like property (including a fair amount of rough handling) is so perfectly embedded that no one notices it, or questions it. Phoolan, far from being a heroine, is a deranged mass murderer and robber, but the movie absolves her of responsibility by placing the blame for her moral degeneration on the shoulders of men.

The movie smells weirdly of PC populism. Men and upper-class people are bad; women are oppressed; the oppression is bad for society. Meanwhile, the movie does not come to grips with its stronger theme: that of a society putting down an insurrection, even one mounted by a lone individual, that threatens the established order. Phoolan's most pronounced characteristic is not that she's a woman who's mistreated, but that she is a powerfully strong-willed and outspoken person who will not accommodate herself to the role she is expected to play.

We are supposed to be mortified by the abuse inflicted on Phoolan, and indeed the movie has more than a few wince-making scenes of men behaving in ways that would land them in prison in the U.S. But she is a subtle and difficult figure, a complete failure as a social diplomat, a woman who seems strikingly ill-adapted to the culture into which she was born.

India's caste system might or might not be a just and rational means of organizing a society, but no successful society can fail to make allowance for characters like Phoolan — people who don't or can't fit in, people whose energy and charisma must somehow be harnessed, or subdued.

Bandit Queen
opens Fri, July 7,
at the Lumiere in S.F. and the
Shattuck in Berkeley.

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