July 26, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Indira Jaisingh

'Phoolan deserved a better death'

Phoolan (Devi) was an amazing Bhartiya nari. She did not deserve to die this way. She deserved a better death. When I first heard about her murder, I could not believe her life had ended so tragically, so prematurely.

I first met Phoolan in the context of the film, Bandit Queen. Novelist Arundhati Roy and I are good friends. She wrote a series of articles on Phoolan in Sunday magazine; these articles are some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. She was the one who raised the issue. Is it ethical, moral and legal to depict the rape of a living woman? How can you make a film about it when the woman is still alive? You are making a tamasha (spectacle) out of a person's life.

Everybody thought it was a great idea to make a film on Phoolan Devi. Arundhati and I didn't and we said so. At the time, it was seen as a very unpopular stand.

People asked us why we were fighting Shekhar Kapur and Channel Four. Some of the things written about Arundhati at the time were really below the belt.

Phoolan came to know that Arundhati had written these articles about her. She got in touch with her and that's how we met for the first time.

When we started looking deeper, we came across the fact that she had signed a contract. It said she would be given a miserable sum of Rs 200,000 for selling the story of her life. The contract was signed in prison, behind bars. It was in English. A copy had been sent to her and she had signed it and given it back.

A Hollywood-style blockbuster film was made. But the inspiration for the film was sitting in prison. So we started asking questions.

While talking to Phoolan, we realised she did not even know Hindi, to say nothing about English. She used to speak in her local dialect. She didn't know how to read or write. That made us start probing the matter. How can you have a contract in English, signed by an illiterate woman sitting in prison, saying that she agrees to sell the story of her life?

What was more important was the fact that, when we spoke to her, she did not admit she had been gang-raped. This was one incident in her life she did not want to talk about. She just glossed over it. And what was Bandit Queen all about? Rape is not entertainment… that is what we were trying to say.

Phoolan Devi did not want to talk about her rape. If a woman was so reluctant to talk about it after so many years, how could she have possibly sold the rights for a movie? That, too, for a miserable sum of Rs 200,000? That was what was so amazing. Yet, she would often say she had paid the price for whatever she had done.

There was a clear case of exploitation. She wanted to take the matter to court. That's how I ended up as her lawyer.

She would come to court for each hearing. I still remember the first day she came to the Delhi High Court. The place came to a standstill. The court's entire winding staircase was packed with people waiting to see her. The lawyers left their work and came to see this woman called Phoolan Devi, who was reputed to be a bandit.

Those of us who interacted with her knew she was very intelligent, very smart. In her case, because of this, the fact that she was illiterate became meaningless. She knew how she was perceived by other people.

She was determined to fight the case. And she did. The fact that she was able to mobilise people like us, win us over to her side, speaks volumes about her ability.

We finally managed to get an injunction from the court, restraining the producer from exhibiting the film. It was only after she settled her case with producer Bobby Bedi and director Shekhar Kapur that she allowed the film to be released. I understand she got a very substantial sum of money from them by way of settlement.

There are people who ask us what the fight was all about, especially since she ultimately allowed the depiction of the rape and her naked parade. But the fact remains that she did not submit to the exploitation of selling her life story for Rs 200,000. When she came out of prison, she fought her battle and made sure she got a substantial sum of money. All we had was writer Mala Sen's words against Phoolan Devi's. Mala Sen said she personally explained the contract to her, while Phoolan told us no one did anything like that.

The more important issue, though, was whether depicting her rape amounted to degrading her. Did she not have the right to say she did not want her life to be made public? Everyone has a right to privacy. You also have the right to give up your privacy. But you must do it consciously and know fully well what you are doing.

People felt that, though Arundhati and I fought for the principle that a living woman should not be depicted being raped, Phoolan agreed in the end. The film, including the rape scenes, was released. But we had always believed that only Phoolan had the right to decide. Not Arundhati Roy or Indira Jaisingh. Not Shekhar Kapur or Bobby Bedi.

People also ask me that, when I am part of the law-enforcing structure, how could I admire a law-breaker? I do because Phoolan Devi has the courage to surrender. She served a sentence of 11 years in jail. Once she goes to prison, serves her term and is released, then Phoolan and I are equal. You may have been a law-breaker once, but I cannot attach that label to you for the rest of your life. You pay for your crimes once, as Phoolan did. She was in prison for 11 long years.

Part II: 'Phoolan believed her past would catch up with her'

Indira Jaisingh spoke to Sheela Bhatt.

Design: Uttam Ghosh

You might also like to read:
Full coverage: The Phoolan Devi murder

The Rediff Specials

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