Although I've only seen two films he's directed, I feel fairly confident in saying that Shekhar Kapur is a "big hammer" kind of craftsman. There are some directors who know that if they use a little hammer, the nail will come in just as straight, but there won't be as much noise. Jim Jarmusch is a good example of a "little hammer" kind of craftsman. He draws very little attention to himself, moves very slowly, and gets to a quality ending, almost without fail. Kapur, as a big hammer filmmaker, does his darnedest to make sure that everything that's onscreen is clear. He leaves virtually nothing to the intelligent viewer's imagination, nothing to figure out. When he finds a good symbol, he uses it over and over, almost until it loses are meaning. When he has themes that can be literalized, he makes sure he does it, rather than letting viewers read into the text. It's all there in its heavy-handed glory. As a little hammer fan, I've found both Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, to be slightly less than fully satisfying. However, just as I could appreciate Elizabeth for the wonderful performances, I found much to enjoy in Bandit Queen.
Bandit Queen tells the true story of Phoolan Devi who, with the help of the media, gained a Robin Hood-esque notoriety in a small province of India in the 1980s. The film begins with Devi being married to a much older man at 11, not for money or for love, but because the man needs laborers at his house. The husband rapes her, the first of a series of rapes in the film. She runs home but, having aged a few years, she runs into trouble with the upper caste, the Thakurs when she turns down the advances of a rich man's son. She's sent away to cousins, where she first encounters a troop of bandits, led be Vikram, who kinda takes a shine to her for her spirit. But again she is sent home (the movie's plot is almost entirely composed of back and forths), only to be again kidnapped, this time by the bandits and this time for bounty. When Vikram kills the head bandit for raping her, Phoolan Devi gains full stature as a member of the Bandits until their Thakur head is released and all heck breaks loose. It's all very upsetting. The second half of the film is a vengeance drama, as Phoolan leads a mini-revolution against the Thakurs until she gains the attention of India's national government and she's arrested. But not before she becomes a hero, setting a completely new standard for female empowerment in the country.
Should I be bugged by the genre of supposedly feminist films where the female protagonist goes it on her own, but really needs a man to untap her power? And that once that man untaps the power, he inevitably gets to both benefit from her power and her sexuality? Or should that not bother me? When Vikram and Phoolan raid a transport car, for example, Vikram first tells the passengers that they've been raided by Phoolan Devi's gang. Then he tells them that they've been robbed by the beautiful bandit. First he names her and then he takes away the name to objectify her. Later, when a Thakur boss flirts with her, Vikram tells her to shoot anybody who touches her. Is he telling her to protect herself, or is he protecting his investment? These are just a few of the sexual incongruities of the film. Kapur's need to produce drama and romance undermines the female empowerment at the heart of his tale.
And as I've mentioned, Kapur is not a subtle director. This film features a half dozen scenes of marriages. All of the marriages are related in some way to bloodshed. Obvious enough for you? Ditto with the number of baths characters take. Basically whenever a character is about to embark on a new direction in life, they bathe. Almost as if bathing equals rebirth. Could be. I'd compare these images with the haircuts which bookend Elizabeth. Kapur seems desperate to make sure that you get what he's doing, so he takes all of the guesswork out of it.
Still, the story is enriched by the triangulation of the story lines. Just as Phoolan Devi will always be an outcast because she's a woman, she will always be an outcast because she's of a lower caste. The minor problem is that she can't get anybody to be outraged with her about the gender thing, but getting people offended by the class disparity is a breeze. There's a proration of disabilities here that is probably very telling. Kapur is also very effective at handling the Bandit Queen as a decidedly rural phenomenon. He does an excellent job of showing how decentralized the Indian government is, both geographically and culturally. While everybody in the small towns views her as an idol, the English speaking government officials are mostly amused both by how long it took them to find out about her and by the level of her popularity.
The performances are interesting, as is the technical beauty of the film. However, while we're shown repeated scenes of Devi's torture, we really see very little of the Bandit Queen in action. There's very little that's heroic in Kapur's depiction of her, unless we're just supposed to accept that because she's a woman who kicks a little butt she's worth adulation. I'm not sure that that is enough. Basically, the film validates the notion that she was a media invention. We basically see her get beaten, raped, and abused and then when we see her kill a couple people in rage that's supposed to not only justify but validate her. I'm unconvinced.
I'm sure that Bandit Queen serves an important purpose, especially for Western viewers. Additionally, I'm equally certain that many of the stylistic problems I have with Kapur are cultural, the man directing out of the culture from which he comes. Still, this movie doesn't work as well for me as it should. I'd give it a 6/10.
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