Sometimes, the farther away you go, the nearer you come. That's evidenced in this week's films by the coincidental occurrence on the same day of Lasse Hallstrom's frothy Julia Roberts vehicle, "Something to Talk About," and, at the Charles, Shekhar Kapur's incendiary "The Bandit Queen," about a legendary female bandit who roamed, looted and pillaged India in the late 1970s.
In some ways "Something to Talk About" and "The Bandit Queen" are the same movie; and Roberts' Grace King Bichon and Seema Biswas' Phoolan Devi are the same woman. Both have been born into a rigid society, which takes their place in it -- which is low -- absolutely for granted. Both are seen as less than human. Yet neither of them can accept what they've inherited. Both rebel.
Okay: Some small differences. Grace fights with wit, Phoolan with a .303 rifle.
The movie, derived from an authentic case that became famous in India, is rough going for the unprepared. It opens with a loveless scene where an 11-year-old child is sold into marriage for a sickly cow and a rusty bike. Soon her creepy husband is slapping her for insubordination, and raping her for the fun of it. When she flees, she falls between the cracks of the caste system and has to live off the bitter charity of relatives (she has humiliated her family).
Alas, the weight of caste is also part of her burden. Some high-class louts also rape her, then testify against her at a village trial. When she's arrested, the soldiers rape her. When she's kidnapped by bandits, she's raped again. The director, Shekhar Kapur, doesn't sugarcoat the brutality of these encounters, as he doesn't turn India into an enchanted glade. His males are brutal thugs and they wander a dusty, bleak landscape. One feels the yoke of oppression by violence in every merciless frame of the film.
But Phoolan, played with true grit by Biswas, is simply not one to take all this abuse as her lot in life. She finally finds power where so many generations of rebels have found it: in the barrel of a gun.
The movie is played as pure melodrama and in some respects resembles some cheesy women's vengeance pictures of the '70s, like Abel Ferrar's "Ms. .45" or "The Day of the Woman." Uniting with two more sympathetic male bandits, first Vikram and later Man Singh, she forms her own gang, and soon enough it's payback time. Fight as you will against it, the crude justice of Phoolan's revenge is rousing and the energy with which Kapur films it is incredible. The movie takes you in and stuns you.
Starring Seema Biswas and Nirmal Pandey
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Released by Arrow
Unrated (extremely brutal)