Blu-ray Review: Bandit Queen - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Before gaining mainstream recognition with his award-winning Cate Blanchett-starring Queen Elizabeth I biopics (Elizabeth in 1998, Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007) and The Four Feathers (2002), director Shekhar Kapur gained widespread acclaim for Bandit Queen. The 1994 Indian production tells the fact-based story of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas). The film depicts the sexual assaults Devi experienced throughout her life, beginning with her arranged marriage as a preteen. She’s trapped in the brutally oppressive social caste system of India, not to mention the equally brutal sexism that keeps (or at least apparently kept) women from achieving anywhere near the education and opportunities seen by men.

Devi was born in 1963 and the film’s story begins in 1968. I don’t claim to know or understand the current state of Indian society, I’m merely reflecting on what is depicted in the film. Kapur doesn’t try to shock with his depictions of child rape and the multiple rapes (including gang rape) Devi experiences throughout her life. He stages everything with the matter-of-factness of a documentary. Eventually Devi takes charge of her destiny to some degree, seeking revenge as the so-called “Bandit Queen.” Strictly in terms of storytelling, Bandit Queen doesn’t have much to it. Basically it comes down to a series of violent atrocities perpetrated against Devi, followed by her attempts to serve vigilante justice to the wrongdoers. That’s not to detract from the harrowing story (which, for the record, the late, real-life Phoolan Devi actually protested as being inaccurate), just an observation that the film may not hold an abundance of repeat-viewing value.

Bandit Queen cover (215x280).jpgBandit Queen is presented cleanly in high definition on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray. Ashok Mehta’s grainy, documentary-like cinematography isn’t pretty in a traditional sense, but it perfectly complements the gritty rawness of the subject matter. The transfer here is reasonably sharp. The audio is DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo in the original Hindi (non-optional English subtitles appear onscreen throughout) and it sounds fine. The music, credited to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Roger White, is presented on an isolated track.

There’s also an audio commentary track by director Shekhar Kapur, who talks in hushed tones about the film. Kapur shares a lot of interesting information, detailing the emotionally draining process he underwent while deciding how to shoot some of the more disturbing scenes without being exploitative. It’s well worth the listen. Film historian Julie Kirgo’s take on the film is included in her booklet essay.

Bandit Queen is a raw nerve of a film and, thanks to its basis in fact and a fearless performance by Seema Biswas, is definitely worthy of discovery by those who haven’t yet seen it. Interested parties can find out how to order the limited edition Blu-ray at Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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