The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 9, 2001

Reliving the Phoolan story yet again
Narendra Kumar Oberoi

Phoolan Devi: Exploited by the media and politicians
Phoolan Devi: Exploited by the media and politicians

SHE was overtaken by her persona while she was alive. This persona was not just of her own making. It was thrust on her with the publication of her biographies in French, English and other languages and the release of the film Bandit Queen. She had become a celebrity. What kind of becoming it was and what tension it might have generated in her being, has been of no interest to her discoverers. If it attracted the attention of Dhruv Kumar whose film on her, The First Rebel, is being shown on Italian television, one cannot say.

She shot into public gaze with the news of the alleged murder of 20 or so Thakurs of Behmai by her. Media played it up so much that she become the subject of biographies and the film Bandit Queen. That there was in her life-story the potential for a fabulous narrative caught the attention of media. Hereafter she enters a different milieu. In the world of showbiz, public discourse and the loose talk monitored by the gossip-peddlers amongst us, with vested interests, she loses control over her persona. Her objections to her projection in the film were not heeded. The truth of the narrative of the Bandit Queen that she was at odds with was her truth, she was told. "The Bandit Queen passes away" "Bhimai visits New Delhi after 23 years" "M.P. Phoolan dies a Bandit’s death" was reported in the newspapers.


The Booker Prize-winner and activist against the Narmada Dam, Arundhati Roy exposes the claimsabout the truth of the narrative of the Bandit Queen made by its director at the premiere of the film. If it (the truth) was gruesome, it was the character of truth itself which he did not feel the need to check up with Phoolan herself all along while making the film. The gruesome part was that Phoolan was not even shown the film, the uncensored version of the film was making the rounds of the international market. Instead of having any compunctions, on their part, the film producers pleaded fervently that Phoolan being was street-smart enough and had an animal instinct for survival. She had cornered them into paying her 40,000 pounds to buy her silence, they said. Her smartness was not seen as a consequence of their villainy passing itself for their concern for truth, art and culture.

For the cinematic appeal of the film, Arundhati coins an interesting expression, the" rape-trick". The prurience of the rape scenes is sustained in such a subtle way that their outrageous import dissolves into the lascivious details. It’s box office masala with distinction. But for its "rape trick," would the film have done such good business? For Arundhati, the treatment meted out to Phoolan by Shekhar Kapoor and company was no different from that of the village Thakurs. Arundhati does not touch upon the background music, photography and the performance of the actress doing Phoolan Devi’s role. She also misses out the social and political impact of this outrage on the consciousness of those victims who would not even get to see the film.

The life of the people is the least important part of the film. The film does not see the rise of Phoolan from their midst, as an outgrowth of their traumas and terror of living in their kind of milieu. Making of the bandit, merely for the quick-sell of the narrative, is their primary concern. The concluding scene of the film is Phoolan’s bewilderment at public applause on her surrender.

There is no suggestion of any disempowerment of the Thakurs’ might. The might of the law is depicted but now how it is made so by the ilk of thakurs against the likes of Phoolan.

Phoolan was cremated at Mirzapur, her electoral constituency, and not the village that she came from. Her suction into the electoral politics is on. She is being made out to be a Robinhood prototype for the Dalits. The details of her cremation and its message were decided by the Samajwadi Party. In all likelihood, her sister would be M.P. in her place.

The fact that people elected her is a recognition of the larger-than-life element in her lifestory. The managers of caste politics are interested in its electoral pay-off, the media in the financial turnover and the academia in the ideological legitimacy they can wangle out of it.This aidstheir complicity in the power-play of the system against those who challenge it..

The organic grassroots reality of peoples’ struggles is increasingly being converted into icons, images and signs of the hyper-reality that sells.

The political implication of Phoolan’s life struggles are going to be caricatured in the public concern over her being shot down dead within few kilometres of Parliament House. What she had said, after finding herself in the company of parliament members about her journey from crime to politics would not be heard.

Explanations for her sudden end are rather cliched. They betray our predilections for the axiomatic morality, the triumph of the good over evil, of truth over falsehood and all that. The symbolic significance of her truth and fight against injustice stands overpowered by the unquestioned survival of the system against its rebels. The film Bandit Queen did well in the international and the national circuits because it had a subtle mix of the making of a heroine and its unmaking in the end. The truth of the Bandit Queen becomes ours — unevenly split between Phoolan and her oppressors. An international Phoolan Institute of Caste and Race study is going to open in England, though caste is not included on the agenda of the UNO conference on race shortly going to be held.

The Bandit Queen returned in cinema houses of the country after Phoolan’s death. Seeing the film in a rather empty hall, I remembered the gleeful booing and hissing from the lower stalls of the hall over the rape scenes when I watched it in for the first time. I wonder if unwitting revellers might have felt sorry for it on second thoughts.Did they or did’nt they? I think the same about producers of the film, the human rights activists who did not come to Phoolan’s rescue in her struggle against the Thakurs, producers of the film and the feminist crusaders who found her always untouchable.

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