History, culture, life, human nature - whatever you want to call the forces that cause us to act the way we do - can be brutal, selfish, narrow, dumb, bleak. Sometimes all of these elements and adjectives come crashing down in a single narrative, and when they do, we get Bandit Queen's story of Phoolan Devi.* Is there resolution? No. Forgiveness? No. Peace? No. Regret? Not that I understood. Responsibility? Only when forced. Sympathy? Very little. Courage? Maybe, but usually it gets filtered through fear and revenge. Community? Maybe, but societies in the world of this movie just seem to drive individuals to either mob behavior or extreme complacency.
This last point is what disturbed me most. How many people saw the literally countless abuses against Phoolan Devi and did nothing? Dozens, hundreds. By no means does this justify most of her decisions and actions, but it very quickly and thoroughly creates an environment in which I could accept why she did what she did.
The movie's little touches of beauty - a laughing bicycle ride, the harsh landscape, ruins of lovely carved stones, the simple textures of daily life that witnessed the violence - and the wrenching performances just made everything hurt even more; instead of limiting the story by being ridiculous, they built a world in which all this happened. I don't even want to try to think about what the message of Bandit Queen is. I don't want to think about it anymore at all.
Aside: If you want to see this, please, please be warned that starting at about 1 hour 12 minutes there is a 5- or 6-minute scene that might just break you. I told Filmi Geek I was going to watch with my teddy bear close at hand, but I didn't get around to that layer of protection, but it wouldn't have helped one bit.
*Notice I didn't just say "the life of Phoolan Devi" - horrific as it may really have been, it seems the facts are so muddied that I don't even want to consider the question of whether the film is accurate or even representative, and in some ways I don't think that matters much.