Phoolan Devi the "Bandit Queen:" a Legendary Woman's Story of Vigilante Justice

This article is a response to and contains spoilers of the 1994 Indian film, Bandit Queen. Discussions of violence are contained within; reader discretion is advised.

Dr. Colleen Clemens, a professor of postcolonial and feminist literatures at KU, teaches a course called “Women in Violence in Contemporary World Texts.” I am taking her class this fall semester, and I decided to write a piece on one of the stories we're covering. A few weeks ago, our class watched the film, Bandit Queen. This movie tells the story of Phoolan Devi, a woman who was both a freedom fighter and bandit leader in post-colonial India. The film shows Phoolan at different stages of her life, but in each one, she fights back against patriarchal injustices that try to constrain her. One of the film’s most prominent themes is the depiction of a woman partaking in vigilante justice that intends to subvert toxic patriarchal power structures.

The protagonist Phoolan Devi’s transition into the “Bandit Queen” is rooted in her resistance to the abuses she had experienced throughout her life. In particular, her forced marriage as a child drew Phoolan to be an ardent opponent of child marriage. Throughout the film, even before her “marriage,” Phoolan resisted patriarchal oppression. This ranged from her calling out the boys who slung a rock at her in the beginning to resisting the policemen who sexually assaulted her and killed her comrades while her, her lover, Vikram, and their gang lived in the desert.

In a lot of ways, Phoolan is a character that has only been narratively made into a heroine because of her consistent resistance to the patriarchy’s attempts to make her a perpetually subservient victim. I think that, in this way, her story can be looked at as a phoenix narrative, at least in the sense that she emerged from the “ashes” of her suffering as an almost legendary figure by utilizing violence to subvert the oppression that had been imposed on her—something which she did instead of passively accepting it.

I also thought it incredibly poignant to have a story like this come from a part of the world outside of the United States. Most people who live in the West are unfamiliar with stories outside of our own countries. I’ve always sincerely appreciated the ways in which so many of the works we’re reading this semester have fallen under this category. Looking at case studies of how women fight back against patriarchal violence with their own violence in non-Western regions of the world helps us understand, from a broader perspective, the intersections of oppression that the “white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” has imposed, universally, on the world (had to include a little bit of bell hooks here).

By looking at these otherwise “othered” narratives, we are painting a broader narrative of how women interact with violence that allows us to more accurately understand and diagnose those social structures, which, on a global scale, create an environment in which violence flourishes. Furthermore, it is important to look at this film less as just a story, but as a narrative representative of reality. It needs to be viewed as a means to understand, rather than as a means to entertain. It is the entertainment associated with this story's status as a "movie" that can pollute the story of Phoolan Devi, who herself protested that this movie contained such vivid depictions of her suffering. Despite this, the film serves as a means for people to learn from Phoolan Devi’s story, just as Dr. Clemens’ students are this semester.

Some other stories of women enacting vigilante justice that we’ve covered in Dr. Clemens’ class include Draupadi, a short story by Mahasveta Devi that talks about a woman who leads guerilla warfare in India—much like Phoolan Devi does—and Monster, a film starring Charlize Theron that tells a dramatized story of American spree killer, Aileen Wuornos. Phoolan, Draupadi and Aileen Wuornos each used violence in a way that subverted patriarchal dominance—at least in terms of how their stories were portrayed through literature and film.

In the end, Bandit Queen is representative of a story that portrays women in violence in an intersectional way that has an emphasis on highlighting a colonial or post-colonial experience to a group of students who are privileged enough to live in the United States—meaning us. By learning about stories like this, we are able to better understand the multiplicity of experiences that shape our world, and to better understand the ways in which the injustices within it can be reckoned with and healed.

In order to watch this film, my best advice would be to purchase the DVD on Amazon, as streaming is unavailable. However, should buying the film not be an option, there are some streams available online that have lesser quality subtitles than the official DVD has.