This week’s Feministory subject, Phoolan Devi, had a life that read like an action movie screenplay. In fact, her life BECAME an action movie screenplay. But integral to discussions of Devi and her harrowing story is the search for truth. Who knew the truth about her? Did she tell the truth? Did the books and movie about her tell the truth? Who WASN’T telling the truth? And which truth were her assassins following when they shot her in front of her home in 2001?
The least-disputed facts are these: Devi was born in 1963 in Northern India to a lower-caste family. She was married at 11 to a man in his 30s, but was abandoned by her husband and birth family as a teen when the marriage fell apart. Over the next several years she was assaulted unremittingly; for her caste, for her gender, for her marital status. By the time she was 20, she was living a life of dacoity, leading a group of bandits (hence her colloquial name “The Bandit Queen of India”), and evading capture. In the movie dramatization of her life, it is a brutal scene of gang rape that leads to Devi’s slaughter of 22 men, a real-life crime for which she was charged, imprisoned, and eventually murdered. After being released from prison (and just after the release of Bandit Queen, the movie), Devi sought and won a seat in Parliament. In 2001, at the age of thirty-seven, Devi was shot repeatedly at point-blank range as she approached her front door, where she died. Apart from this information, though, very little is known for sure.
Devi on the day of her surrender, 1981 (age 18)
That’s an enormous part of Devi’s celebrity. She was illiterate for her entire life; hence any writing about her was dictated at best. Arundhati Roy’s scathing indictment of Bandit Queen’s filmmakers ran under the name “The Great Indian Rape Trick” in 1994, and is an incredibly passionate, detailed account of the ways Devi’s caste and educational background were used as vehicles to exploit her and sell her story. Perhaps most notably, Roy’s essay was instrumental in the creation of a judgment in India that states the rape of a still-living woman cannot be depicted in any form without her permission.
This permission, of course, did not exist when Bandit Queen was made. The movie (and book) goes into horrifying, graphic detail in a scene where Devi is captured by a gang leader and raped and beaten by he and his followers for days. That Devi was raped is not in question. She did not speak often about her assault, but referred to the movie’s depiction as akin to “being raped again.” Keep in mind: she was BANNED from the movie’s premiere. Millions of people were granted access to a fictionalized account of her life, and particularly a series of rapes she survived, but she was not. Nor was she, according to Roy, consulted in any way during the film’s conception, filming, or marketing.
There is no shortage of cultural capital lent to Phoolan Devi and her complicated history, even today. The most problematic aspect of her situation to me is that the drama of the story has obscured her treatment (in death as well as life) as a real person. Her murder has still not resulted in prison time for the men who confessed. Two survivors of the Valentine’s Day Massacre for which she was imprisoned for 11 years corroborate her claims to have been absent that day, but she has never been officially cleared. In fact, every article I’ve encountered (with the exception of Roy’s) was written as though she were definitively guilty. Of course, it’s possible she WAS guilty. But the issue is that there is very little concerted effort to find out for sure.
As a Parliamentarian, she fought for women’s rights, an end to child marriage, and the rights of India’s poor. In a Che Guevara-type revision of history, though, Devi is remembered as a romantic Robin Hood figure, robbing the rich to help the poor, and not as a politician working to enact structural change in India’s social hierarchies.
History itself is a version of what happened. Every account is a narrative. For a woman who couldn’t read or write AND who spent most of her life engaged in criminal activity or imprisoned for it (and the rest a child or a politician), facts are easily, perhaps inevitably, sensationalized. Everyone wants to know a definitive version, THE definitive version, but there is none. Devi was murdered in the midst of, and because of, this ambiguity. There are still questions to be asked and answered. There is accountability to be established, and there is above all a life to be remembered. Devi was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life, and her story (in its multiple incarnations) deserves to be told.