Rape - a suitable case for treatment?

To Channel 4, it must seem like a bad dream: the outlaw they have deified has stepped off her pedestal to haul them into court. Arundhati Roy takes issue with the makers of Bandit Queen
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The Independent Culture
On 9 September 1994, lawsuit number 2,000 (Phoolan Devi vs Shekhar Kapur, Channel 4 Television Corporation and others) was filed in the Delhi high court. This time Phoolan Devi, India's best-known bandit, hopes to make a law, not break one; a law that says that a film-maker does not have the right to depict the rape of a living woman without her explicit consent.

When she filed the suit, Phoolan Devi hadn't seen Bandit Queen. Her suit was based on two detailed affidavits describing the film. It took five months and a court order for it to be finally screened for her earlier this month, and it has made her even angrier than she was before.

In her suit she has accused Channel 4 of invading her sexual privacy by depicting her being raped for commercial gain and of prejudicing her trial (at which, if she is found guilty, she could be hanged) by implicating her in a mass murder that she denies having committed.

To the film-makers it must seem like a bad dream: to have the woman that they've deified in their film suddenly step off her pedestal and haul them off to court; to have to defend themselves against the myth that they helped create. "She's changed," they tell us sadly (as though they knew her well). They suggest that she was once keen that her story be filmed, but now that she's married and about to enter politics she wants to rewrite her past.

This sounds perfectly reasonable. But is it true? Three judges in two courts have looked for, but haven't found, any evidence of the "consent" that Phoolan Devi is supposed to have given. Now that she has persisted with her legal action, the film-makers have thrown caution to the winds. Don't believe her, they say. She's a bandit, not a revolutionary (a fact that she's the first to admit).

Meanwhile, in the West, Bandit Queen moves from strength to strength. It has been hailed as the first film of its kind to come out of India. In fact, it is only an arthouse reincarnation of the rape 'n' retribution theme that has been done to death by the commercial Hindi film industry. The big difference, of course, is that none of the others claimed to tell the "truth". So-called "truth" from the Third World, however spurious it may be, sells like few of our other exports. For its success it relies wholly on the ignorance of its audience.

The director, Shekhar Kapur, never met Phoolan Devi once before he made the film. The contracts were secretly smuggled in and out of prison, where she had no access to legal opinion. They were written in English, though she was illiterate and couldn't understand them. And although they clearly state that the film would be based on the "prison diaries" that she dictated to fellow inmates, it depicts several brutal rapes that she doesn't mention or even suggest.

But, given the film's bald, shrill, ethnic politics - the story of a low-caste woman who is forced to become a bandit because she was oppressed by upper-caste Thakurs in her village, a woman who is raped, gang-raped, paraded naked by Thakur dacoits and who murders 20 Thakur villagers in revenge - what liberal Western critic would dare question it?

At foreign film festivals and to the press, the film-makers initially dismissed all criticism as the protests of "upper-caste people" who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. India was portrayed as a banana republic wherein (to quote Time magazine) "brave directors become Untouchables". People who criticised the film were called "pro-caste anti- woman ayatollahs". It's as ridiculous as suggesting that anyone who doesn't like Silence of the Lambs is pro-cannibal.

Take a closer look. Bandit Queen manipulates the viewer into wholeheartedly sympathising with a woman who is supposed to have murdered 20 people whose only crime was that they belonged to the same caste as the dacoits who raped her. The real culprits get away and surface later on to humiliate her once more. Yet the film applauds the massacre.

As for its depiction of rape (lauded by critics for its "restraint" - though it's hard to see what's restrained about a naked backside pumping in and out between a woman's legs), it has the ethics of a wildlife documentary in the way that it candidly probes its animal subjects. Since she wouldn't provide the details, the film-makers had to look for them elsewhere. For their main rape - the "centrepiece" of the film - they appear to have relied on the vicarious account reported in Mala Sen's book on Phoolan Devi. Would they have dared to take such liberties with a woman of their own class and background?

Phoolan Devi's big mistake was to imagine that men would be interested in her story if she had not been raped. Hers is a story full of desperate poverty; of family feuds over land; of inter-gang rivalry that often ended in bloodshed; of looting and kidnapping. She describes her own brutality, but she doesn't mention rape. Or massacre.

Phoolan Devi is remarkable for many reasons. After she was kidnapped she spent three and a half years in the ravines: for the first year and a half she was a moll. The film dwells at length on this period. For the next two years, until she decided to surrender, she led her own gang. These were the years in which she controlled her own destiny, yet Bandit Queen tells us absolutely nothing of this time: of how she baffled the entire Uttar Pradesh police force; how she played daring games with them; how she negotiated her surrender on her own terms.

There is not a single scene in which Phoolan Devi makes her own decisions. If men are not raping her, abusing her, selling her or buying her, they're telling her what to do, teaching her how to walk, comforting her when she cries and appearing to her in her dreams. Even her acts of retribution are supervised by them. It is nothing short of astounding, the way they've managed to turn this gritty survivor into another pathetic, snivelling victim. Yes, they've made some superficial concessions: they've put her in trousers, given her a gun and some four-letter words. But, essentially, Bandit Queen just transforms Phoolan Devi from being India's best-known bandit into history's most famous victim of rape.

So when it opens in your neighbourhood theatre and you decide to go and see for yourself what the fuss is all about, remember that Phoolan Devi is a proud woman. She is prepared to stand trial for the crimes she has been accused of committing. But she does not want you watching her being raped and humiliated. There must be other ways for you to spend an evening.

Arundhati Roy wrote the screenplay of `Electric Moon', a feature film for Channel 4. She was working on another screenplay for C4 when she saw `Bandit Queen' and wrote an essay about it for the journal `Sunday'. `Needless to say,' she writes, `Channel 4 is not exactly pleased with my efforts, and I am in search of an alternative livelihood'