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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Intersections of Caste and Gender: A Critical Analysis of Gendered Violence in ’Bandit Queen’ | Sahil Singh

Saturday 23 March 2024


Keywords: Caste, Gender, Violence, Structural Oppression, Agency, Representation, Appropriation

Phoolan Devi: A Symbol of Resilience and Resistance

Phoolan Devi, born into a family of lower caste Mallahs (boatmen) in a rural village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, became an icon throughout her thirty-eight-year existence and a subject of curiosity for the mainstream media both nationally and globally. The media was quick to cast her in the role of the "Bandit Queen," who was a subject of horrific sexual abuse, which in turn made her the dreaded criminal who terrorized the Chambal ravines in northern India. Media narratives of Phoolan primarily categorized her as an oppressed lower caste woman who sought revenge through murder and other violent means, similar to the mythic figure of goddess Kali (Murty, 2010, p. 1). In the context of the media and other popular cultural narratives, we look at the controversial movie Bandit Queen, directed by Shekhar Kapur. The film Bandit Queen triggered a lively debate on the politics of authenticity, agency, authority, and accountability in representing an individual’s real-life experiences and challenges.

Dalit Women: Bodies, Violence, and Structural Oppression

Dalit women, who are a segregated segment of society, are seen as contaminated and ’impure’ bodies. The Dalit body is polluted, and it is meant only for menial and degrading tasks, such as manual scavenging and carcass disposal. Dalit bodies are, therefore, "polluted’; hence, they are not meant to be touched openly in public as it would pollute and debase the society (Pal et al., 2021, p. 61). Ironically, the same Dalit body becomes a consumable body that can be controlled and gagged by the same hierarchical society that condemns and discriminates against those bodies. It is important to recognize here how the social relations of caste and gender are based on the exercise of power through force (ibid). The systems of domination are deeply embedded in the caste hierarchy, which generates an asymmetry of burden, forms of exploitation, social location, and nature of oppression and subjugation of Dalits. It is critical to recognize that Dalit women face structural violence, which is the product of multiple overlapping elements, including identities, institutions, and hierarchies. Women are not a homogeneous group and are affected differently by forces such as caste, class, religion, ethnicity, and race, among others. Dalit women face many forms of discrimination and targeted violence as a result of their social position at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies.

Rape is also structural. Rape is used as an instrument to dishonor not only the Dalit woman but also to dishonor her family and her community. This is demonstrated in Bandit Queen (1994) by the manner in which upper-caste men inflict their domination over Phoolan’s body. The film violently represents physical, verbal, and sexual abuse in both private and public spheres. Phoolan is nothing more than a sexual object to various men, including her husband from early marriage, the son of the local headman, police officers, the upper caste commander of the rubber gang Babu Gujjar, and lastly, Thakur Sri Ram and Lala Ram’s gang members. The sexual assaults on Phoolan portray how they are linked to entrenched casteist norms and practices. In one brutal scene in the movie, Phoolan is stripped of all her clothes and forced to walk naked in front of the locals by Sri Ram. The scene depicts how the upper caste Thakur not only dishonors Phoolan but also sends a chilling message to all Mallahs of the village to remain subjugated to the Thakurs and not even dare to dream of questioning and oppose their dominance. Similarly, "the act of continuous gang rapes and physical tortures are signs of hegemonic masculine power used to kidnap and imprison a Dalit woman’s body, and therefore the goal of controlling the woman’s body is accomplished" (Pal et al. 2021, Pp. 61-63).

Agency, Representation and Appropriation

Throughout the events of Bandit Queen, violence becomes a recurring theme. Phoolan’s casteist/feminine body is depicted at every pivotal moment of the film when the camera focuses on her. "In the journey from a hapless childhood bride to the notorious bandit queen, Phoolan’s body performs the role of a determiner of her fate. The spectacle of cinema depicts a sustained form of Savarna patriarchy in the act of ’public rape’ (Pal et al., 2021, p. 63). Though one might argue that the film was realistic in its attempt to depict Phoolan’s tormented and horrific life, it also faced the brunt of criticism for its portrayal of Phoolan primarily as a rape victim. "The film’s presentation of rape as an explanation for Phoolan Devi’s transformation into an outlaw transforms rape into the sole motivation for her subsequent actions" (Fernandes, 1999, p. 141). It is important to note how the movie not only accounts for the life story of Phoolan Devi but it also portrays how the dreaded dacoit was raped and mutilated by men from many walks of life from the time she was a child bride until she reached adulthood. The controversy surrounding the portrayal of rape was exacerbated further by Phoolan Devi’s attempt to prevent the film from being distributed and broadcast in India. Although Phoolan Devi agreed to the film’s production, she had not anticipated the film’s graphic depiction of rape, a representation that violated her sense of honor in the context of hegemonic social norms in India that portray rape victims as figures of shame and dishonor (Fernandes, 1999, p. 128). The question of Phoolan’s own agency seems to be taken for granted by Kapur in the name of creative independence. The question of whether Phoolan’s agency was appropriated by Kapur and his male gaze is also brought to light by Arundhati Roy. In her essay "The Great Indian Rape Trick" (1994), Roy examines how the film’s depiction of Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen, goes against the original personality of Phoolan Devi by using the trope of rape and reducing the gendered frame from a combatant warrior to nothing more than "a raped woman." Roy even says in her review that "Rape is the main course." "Caste is the sauce in which it swims" (Roy, 1994).
Another critique of the movie is reflected in "Leela Fernandes’s work: Reading "India’s Bandit Queen’’: A Trans/national Feminist Perspective on the Discrepancies of Representation’’ how Bandit Queen perpetuates binary oppositions such as modern/traditional, difference/sameness, and First World/Third World, labeling the Third World as a site of violence and disorder. According to Fernandes, this is accomplished by the "convergence of specific strategies of representation in film, the historical tradition of the genre of ethnographic film, and the political economy of the production and consumption of texts’ like Bandit Queen. (Fernandes, 1999, p. 136). Though Fernades also concedes that while the movie appropriates Phoolan Devi’s life experiences, the film also served to undermine specific hegemonic social norms and conventions about public morality, sexuality, and rape.

Conclusion: Reflecting on Gender Dynamics in Cinema

The analysis of "Bandit Queen’’ exposes the pervasive gendered violence faced by marginalized communities, particularly Dalit women. The representation of the traumatic experiences of Phoolan Devi brings into question the complicated issues of agency, representation and appropriation in cinema. In spite of facing backlashes and scandals, "Bandit Queen ’’ stands as a poignant reminder of the importance of challenging the hegemonic narratives and giving attention to marginal voices in our cultural discourse. The cinematic lens creates this mirror for us where we watch, question and even take part in the on-going discussion around gender and its portrayal in the widely shared cultural narratives.

(Author: Sahil Singh is pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations at South Asian University, with research interests in Popular Culture, Conflict, and Peace studies)


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