Right of reply: `Bandit Queen' gives it to you straight

Last week, the writer Arundhati Roy claimed that Channel 4's film Bandit Queen has travestied the life of the Indian outlaw Phoolan Devi. Here Mala Sen, who wrote the film's script, defends its integrity

Mala Sen
Thursday 02 March 1995 00:02

Everyone is entitled to their view. I feel obliged, however, to correct the untruths that continue to swirl around Phoolan Devi and the rest of us connected with the film.

Arundhati Roy gives the impression that Phoolan Devi did not give consent for the film. This could not be further from the truth. I have known Phoolan and members of her family for many years (far longer than Roy has). When I first met Phoolan, while she was a prisoner in Gwalior Central Jail in 1986, she felt she had been abandoned and was bitter about how the government had treated her after Indira Gandhi's death. She wanted to tell "the whole world" about her life and the events that had shaped her. I set out to do just that.

Years passed in the process and, as recently as 1994, when the film was being made, she told me, "Whatever you and Shekhar Kapur [the director] do, you will not be able to show how much I have really suffered." All I could say was, "Believe me, we're trying". At the time, Phoolan was more interested in her freedom than the film, and I spent most of my time liaising between her and her lawyer in Delhi. I took members of her family and Man Singh, her ex-lover and co-leader of her gang, to Dhaulpur on the Rajasthan border so they could witness the filming of her story. There were no complaints. Arundhati Roy was unacquainted with Phoolan or her family at the time.

Roy says of the film: "For its success, it relies on the ignorance of the audience," and makes a dig at the importers of "Third World" cultures. This sounds like good, down-to-earth nationalism in a world that is fast becoming more culturally mixed; it's the kind of fundamentalism I have ceased to agree with. The film has been shown both in India, before the ban was imposed, and to Indian audiences abroad, and many have supported what it tries to achieve. To imply that only uninformed Westerners will respond is an outright distortion. It is an insult to ordinary people, world-wide and in India, who happen to disagree with Roy's point of view. You can like or dislike the film but allow people to judge it for themselves. I am not in favour of censorship.

Rape affects hundreds of thousands of women all over the world. India is not special. However, in many other societies, women are made to feel shame when they are sexually violated. They are influenced to remain silent. Do we want victims of rape to remain silent, to accept the shame as if it were their fault, part of their sexual privacy? Rape is not part of one's sexual privacy, it is a violation of the body and the soul.

Roy goes on to say Bandit Queen just transforms Phoolan Devi from being India's best-known bandit into "history's most famous victim of rape." This is simply not true. She is shown, in many scenes, as being the protagonist. A woman enraged by injustice, in control of her aspirations. That she feels victimised in between is a fact of life. It is the way all women feel from time to time, however tough they may act. I know this from my own experience.

All the contracts Phoolan signed with Channel 4 were explained to her in detail in the presence of members of her family. Roy says she was exploited because the contracts were in English. It wouldn't have mattered if the contracts had been in Hindi or Chinese because she does not read or write any language. The details had to be explained verbally, in Hindi, and I did this many times over. To protect myself, I got members of her family to counter-sign the contracts.

The implication that she was made to sign what she did not understand is not only untrue but potentially libellous. Still, I have no passion for suing people, so I will leave it to the Delhi High Court to reach its own conclusions. Meanwhile, I hope the fervour shown by Ms Roy will see Phoolan through in the future.

I have nothing against Phoolan Devi, despite all that has happened. I have told her I will try to minimise the potential damage. I am resisting pressure to reveal all that has passed between us. Ms Roy and her supporters fail to understand this. The case before the Delhi High Court (Phoolan Devi v Shekhar Kapur, Channel 4 Television Corporation and others), which began with an affidavit signed by Ms Roy, is only about a film. Do they really know what they are doing to Phoolan Devi? Is it just an ideological debate? The consequences for Phoolan may be serious. That is what I am concerned about.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments