Today marks 30 years of Bandit Queen (1994), a film that put modern Indian cinema on the world map as it premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and was screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The movie was also selected as the Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 67th Academy Awards. Director Shekhar Kapur says people asked him what was wrong with him for making a film that made viewers so uncomfortable and angry after making “sweet films” like Mr India and Masoom.
In this interview, the ace filmmaker opens up about how challenging it was for him to shoot Bandit Queen, especially the gang-rape scene, and reveals how he felt that being a Punjabi man, who shouldered the “weight of patriarchy” all his life, he had to confront the fundamental issues that were so close to home and yet hidden away somewhere on the third page of newspapers.
Shekhar Kapur, 78, shot Bandit Queen 30 years ago. He says it was one of the most challenging films in his career because he internalised it too much, which came naturally to him because he was “angry” at himself for believing he was a “sensitive man” but never confronted fundamental issues in the society through his films.
Bandit Queen is considered one of the most gutsy films in Shekhar Kapur’s filmography. Talking about the making of the movie, the filmmaker says, “What struck me was when I was living in Delhi, it was not more than 150 kms where all this was happening. So I had heard about her. Almost every day, things were written about her on the second or the third page (in newspapers). And yet I felt so distant from the issues. When I decided to do the film and went there to investigate what is happening exactly in that area, I was a bit shocked at myself and embarrassed with myself. I was also very angry because I was wondering how come something like this happen and we’d just put it away in the third page. The more I investigated it, the more I realised something about myself. I am a Punjabi man. All my life I have carried the burden of masculinity on my shoulders, the mardaangi. Films used to be about how a girl has to be shy and the man has to be a pursuer and I kind of had fallen into that trap. And the more I investigated Phoolan Devi’s story, the more I realised that the attitude I had grown up with is the attitude that led to rape. I realised that the whole politics of rape was not ‘Oh god, this man is so bad!’, but the attitude toward rape is formed when you are very young. In all the Hindi films you see, ‘Ladki kitni pyaari hai, kitni sundar hai, shy hai (the girl is so lovely, beautiful and shy).’ And now I was looking at a girl who wasn’t shy and I realised basically there was a lot of anger in me against myself.
“I was like how can I consider myself to be a sensitive man when I am not confronting this fundamental issue. So Bandit Queen was my anger at myself. It is a very angry film, it was against myself. What made me so insensitive for not looking at it before? So when I saw the results of my film, in the theatres or wherever I went, people would come out angry. People would ask me, ‘What happened to you, sir? You are such a beautiful filmmaker who made Mr India and Masoom. You’ve made such beautiful films! Yeh kya kar diya? (What have you done?)’”
The sheer intensity of Seema Biswas in Bandit Queen. As Director I have always been deeply dependent on performances of the actors. Be it Masoom, Mr India, Bandit Queen , Elizabeth .. pic.twitter.com/rVRT3DMWGh
— Shekhar Kapur (@shekharkapur) July 5, 2020
Shekhar Kapur said dealing with his anger was not the only challenge. The bigger challenge was in shooting the gang rape scene for Bandit Queen. The film is based on the story of Phoolan Devi, a female dacoit who went through rounds of physical and sexual abuse, and then was prosecuted by the police for years before she turned into a politician.
“I had to understand the mindset of the girl who was raped and also completely understand the mindset of the rapist. I remember talking to the whole cast and telling them that we are not telling a particular story and every character in the film is a representation of society. We are looking at the society itself,” he says.
Shekhar reveals that almost all his cast members were freshly out of National School of Drama (NSD), and Seema Biswas was their senior. He shares that to make them comfortable with each other, he would make them scream expletives at each other.
“When I was prepping for the film, I took all my actors out. What you’ll notice in the film is that everybody has a hoarse voice. It is because people in rural India have hoarse voices. How we talk is in a very urban way, it is very intimate. But if you go to a rural area, when a child screams, the voice carries much further. I used to take my actors and put them in different corners of that area and make them shout at each other to make their voice hoarse. Every morning they used to scream at each other and make their voice hoarse. Not just that, most of my actors were from NSD, and Seema Biswas was their senior. I wanted them to get used to the fact that she was not their senior and that each one of them was a character. So every morning they would scream expletives at each other so they could get used to the language and the way they had to speak. They would otherwise never say that in front of Seema. And in return, she would scream all the expletives at them loudly. The people of the village thought this bunch of people from the city have gone mad. I had to recreate the emotional idea when I was in the shoot.”
Shekhar Kapur further opened up about how difficult it was for him to shoot the gang-rape scene in the film. “There was one particular scene where everybody had to help me. You know the gang-rape scene… I had imagined the whole gang-rape scene from Phoolan Devi’s point of view. Sometimes when I say this to people that you know that I tried to understand what it feels like to be raped, they say, ‘How do you know? You are a man. You are just saying these words…but what do you go through?’ I just can’t go and shoot that scene and not understand what it feels like. I remember locking myself in a room for two-three days trying to understand how to shoot that scene. I had imagined the whole rape scene, and we filmed the scene with my DOP Ashok Mehta. I would keep going out and throwing up because all I was shooting was close-ups. All I was shooting was the door opening and closing with people going in and out. In my head, I had imagined a two-night gang-rape on a woman and how it would feel. I remember I would go out, puke and come back and tell Ashok that I can’t shoot today and he’d still make me shoot it because I can’t make the actors go through the same thing. It was a small set. I would go out, puke, come back and shoot.”
When asked how different would Bandit Queen be if it was made in 2024, Shekhar promptly replies that he would make the film shorter.
“It is always difficult for a filmmaker to answer that question. With who I am now, of course, I’d make the film differently. I have grown up 30 years. The only way I’d know is by making another film because if you know what you are going to do, then why would you make a film? Every film that you do is an exploration. Bandit Queen, when I made it at that time, was an amazing exploration. What would I change now than I did on the original film — I’d make it shorter. I thought that the film was a bit long. I’d make the scene much shorter,” he concludes.