The revenger's tragedy

Adam Mars-Jones on Bandit Queen and The Shawshank Redemption
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The Independent Culture
This week's subject in the cinema is the three Rs: rape, revenge and rehabilitation. In Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen, a low-caste Indian woman - sexually brutalised since her marriage at the age of 11 - turns on her oppressors, while in Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption, a high-caste American banker in prison for murder survives the sexual assaults of fellow prisoners and rises above the torments of incarceration.

Bandit Queen, written by Mala Sen, opens with the bald statement "This is a true story" - with none of the leeway that "based on" would allow. Still, true or not - and the person whose history it purports to tell, Phoolan Devi, rejects it - the story is hard to follow. In one scene, for instance, Phoolan's lover, Vikram, is wounded in the river Chambal. It's a wound that will need a city doctor, but we don't see how the couple travel. There's simply a cut to Kaipur city and a doctor examining Vikram's wound. But then the doctor leaves - the flat we see is not his but Phoolan's and Vikram's. So what are we supposed to imagine? Apparently, that Phoolan and Vikram travel by some dreamlike means to the city, find themselves accommodation and then locate a doctor who makes house calls - a bizarrely offhand approach to emergency medical treatment.

Other scenes are easy to follow as narratives, but puzzling in their point of view. Phoolan and Vikram, in whose company she has learnt to overcome the trauma of abuse, track down her husband of long ago and take revenge on him. Are we supposed to notice that this is not a deep-laid plan, but an impulsive response? When Phoolan visits her parents and introduces them to Vikram, her father says,"You should be with your husband." Her reply is, in effect, I'll go to my husband all right. You'll see! She is taking revenge in a displaced way on her father, who, after all, agreed to the arranged marriage.

The psychological muddying of this scene is the more damaging since it marks the point where Phoolan Devi stops being a standard bandit, remarkable for her gender, and becomes an equivocal avenger of her caste and her sex. The punishing of the husband is long, drawn-out and perhaps fatal: at one point it seems to be carried out in view of the whole village, at another it becomes almost a sadistic ritual. Afterwards, at any rate, Vikram says: "I haven't seen that side of you." And it doesn't sound like a reproach. It's also a problem that Vikram (Nirmal Pandey), Clyde to Phoolan's Bonnie, handsome, tender and, for a bandit, proto-feminist ("I don't buy people, I win their respect, even women") is so ideal as to seem like a parody of a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

When her gang undertakes a raid, Phoolan seems to go into a sort of trance. She may steal a necklace from a jeweller's, ask a passing girl her name and whether she'd like to join the gang, and then, when the child's mother starts to snatch her away, give her the necklace to wear on her wedding day. Public law-breaking seems to be a form of regression therapy for her, creating a space where she can repair the past in fantasy.

The director, Shekhar Kapur, tries to put us inside Phoolan's head when, in a sense, we least need to be there. When he shows us her most infamous exploit, the Behmai massacre, he bleaches the image and uses slow-motion to suggest that she is overwhelmed by memories of gang rape. This may be true of Phoolan, but it can't be true of her gang, who commit mass murder without, apparently, any word of command. Is this because the massacre was planned beforehand, or was it a spontaneous atrocity? By leaving these questions open, Bandit Queen comes closer to having no point of view than to having a complex one which could contain both heroism and its opposite.

The film leaves only incidental satisfactions in the memory. The bleached ravines round the river Chanbal, and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, equally stark in its beauty; an unfamiliar expletive ("sister fucker") that makes frequent appearances in the subtitles; and a touchingly human moment in Seema Biswas's performance as Phoolan, where she tries to share Vikram's pleasure in music by mimicking the little shakes of the head that in him are spontaneous.

The Shawshank Redemption is drawn from a short novel by Stephen King, but it certainly isn't, at 143 minutes, a short film. The simplest explanation of the great leisure of the proceedings is that the director (Frank Darabont, in his first venture for the big screen), is pushing the material towards being a film rather than a movie. A movie is plot-driven, fits neatly into a genre and lasts less than 100 minutes. A film seeks to make general statements about life, and there is no upper limit of length. The prison that gives the film its title, and where almost all the action is set, comes perilously close to becoming a metaphor for the human condition, and people say things like "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

The sad thing is that The Shawshank Redemption, a so-so film, would have made a terrific little movie. A pacier project would have given us less time to notice sentimentalities: very few of the convicts can be described as bad people, while almost all the villains are on the staff.

The treatment of sex in prison is notably stranded between genre conventions and a more serious approach. The hero, played by Tim Robbins, is raped many times in the early part of his incarceration by a group of inmates known as "the sisters". The film is clear that these are not homosexuals expressing their base desires but simply bullies trying to break the newcomer's spirit in a specialised way, but the end result is that there are no gay people in Shawshank, nor is there anything you could call sex. When not being brutally sodomised, the convicts content themselves by looking at posters of - as the decades turn - Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch.

No homosexuality, no homophobia and no racism in this ideal jail: Morgan Freeman plays the prison fixer, Red, who is never made to feel a second- class citizen as a black man by his fellow inmates or by the staff. It would be churlish to object to anything that brings us a performance as likeable as Freeman's, but it would be nice to supplement the colour-blind casting (of a part that is Irish in the book) with just a little rewriting, to reflect what it would have been like to be black in that place and that time - the historical reality, rather than the universal truths of the human condition.

n Both films open tomorrow