'Bandit Queen' is an arthouse update of the old 70s exploitation movies, in which a relentless focus on female suffering is justified by a pseudo-feminist revenge-plot. Taking us far away from the multi-coloured, song-and-dance Hindi spectaculars that are currently all the global range, Shekhar Kapur shows us an India riven by violence, poverty and a vicious caste system, where women are treated as subhuman. Before she even hits puberty, Phoolan Devi is married off to an older man (dowry: rusty bicycle and old goat) and raped when she expresses dissatisfaction at her social lot. When, some years later, she is nearly raped again by the landowner's son, it is she who is expelled from the community; she takes up with bandits and begins her first true love affair with the atypically sensitive Vikram, de facto leader while Babu Gujjar is in prison. When the latter is released, now turned police informer, he resents the pretensions of this lower-caste woman (called a goddess by her followers), has her gang-raped by all his men, and publicly stripped and humiliated. Having plumbed the lowest depths there are, Devi takes the blood-spattered road of vengeance, turning torture and massacre into a media-fuelled spectacle.
When the director of 'Queen' later went on to make a film about Tudor-era royal conspiracies ('Elizabeth'), many were surprised because of the gaping differences in subject matter, but Kapur imposes his own concerns on the two movies: both feature outsider-women attempting to assert power in rigid male-dominated hierarchies; both emphasise the importance of costume, ritual and public spectacle in these societies, and the necessary reuninciation of sexuality and 'normal' femininity of strong women. In both, the apparently immovable class system represented in heavy buildings and landscape is made fluid and unstable by Kapur's gliding camerawork that seems to make walls melt away.
But whereas 'Elizabeth' was an artistic success, 'Queen' seems to me a manipulative failure. This is mostly due to its reliance on a single source, the prison diaries of Devi, whereas the latter film created a web of conflicting viewpoints and omnipresent sense of surveillance. It is of course right to expose the atrocities embedded in the Indian caste system, and the slavery of women; it is right that a woman denied a voice in her own country (where the film was banned) should be heard. But the catalogue of unspeakable crimes inflicted on Devi has the effect of caricaturing the villains around her, turning her very real plight almost into a cartoon of repetitive violence. There is no nuance of social analysis here; instead the most simplistic behaviouralism - if such-and-such is inflicted on you, you will respond thus - depoliticising Devi's very real social transgression, reducing her to a mere melodramatic heroine, the 'woman wronged'. Having stayed so closely with its heroine and her experiences of abuse, when the film has to distance itself from her violence (which it must to avoid endorsing eye-for-an-eye brutality), it feels like a betrayal. By lingering on her suffering rather than her revenge, the latter is as abrupt, arbitrary and dreamlike as 'Lawrence Of Arabia', the vile murders shot with the same kind of exquisite taste and fussy staging, the political wholly subsumed to the deranged personal. I always get a bit queasy when men direct these kind of pseudo-feminist pictures - more interested in her body than her voice, 'Queen' can only continues the dehumanisation of its so-called heroine.