Film, Fact and Truth

In preparing a review of two recent films devoted to the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), the Pakistani film Manto/Mein Manto (2015) and the more recent Mumbai-produced Manto (2019) directed by Nandita Das, I realized that it was difficult to discuss these two films without providing some kind of contextual frame for that discussion. In the first place, one needs to establish in general terms what one understands by the so-called “biopic”, the biographical or autobiographical film purporting to tell “the real story” of someone’s life.. This will be the subject of a second article.  This in turn, however, raises an even more general question of the whole relationship between film, reality and truth and it is this rather ambitious subject that I should like to concentrate on in this first of a series of three articles. In the third article in the series I shall review the two Manto films. For this article, however, I want to concentrate on an earlier Indian “biopic”, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1995) and the controversy that surrounded it, particularly a notorious critique of the film, “The Great Indian Rape Trick” by the writer Arundhati Roy.

In the Jean-Luc Godard film Le Petit Soldat (1960 but nor released because of problems with the censor until 1965), a character makes the following famous (“notorious?) statement: “La photographie, c’est la vérité et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde… ” (photography is truth and cinema is the truth twenty-four times per second).The phrase is often repeated as though it was the opinion of Godard himself although it is in fact a statement by a fictional character (and a rather unreliable character at that). Godard, like many of the film-makers who get docketed together under the label nouvelle vague (“new wave”),  was, and is, in some ways rather naïve in his attitudes but I like to think that in this the statement was intended ironically. For nothing could be further from the truth. The camera, contrary to proverb and popular belief, does lie – constantly and the cinema is capable of lying twenty-four hours per second. It is in fact this that makes the cinema art rather than simply a purely mechanical recording-process.

In 1995 Shekhar Kapur produced the film Bandit Queen, a biography of sorts of the Uttar Pradeshi bandit leader turned politician Phoolan Devi. It proclaimed, as films so often do, that “this is a true story”. The film was an enormous success, establishing a reputation outside India for Kapur that would allow him to move to New York and find employment in Hollywood. The film, and the veracity of the film, was attacked in an almost equally celebrated article the same year by the then little-known Bengali author Arundhati Roy entitled “The Great Indian Rape Trick”. Roy quotes Kapur as saying at the première of the film in Delhi, “I had a choice between Truth and Aesthetics. I chose Truth, because Truth is Pure.” If so it was a very foolish thing to say and was, unlike the remark by the Godard character quoted above, deeply disingenuous rather than merely naïve, but, as Roy points out, no doubt correctly, “to insist that the film tells the Truth” was “of the utmost commercial (and critical) importance to him.”  The reasons why films are so frequently advertised in this fashion (often even when their basis in reality is very flimsy indeed) is an interesting question and one I shall return in detail in later reviews but, although it does appear to fulfil some kind of need on the part of audiences, it is essentially more a matter of publicity and as such not very relevant to the issue of the quality of the film itself.

Kapur would have been much better advised to have defended his films for what it really is – drama, to have spoken of it, as he did (according to Roy) before the Censorship Board as “a work of art”. “Biopics” are of two kinds. There are those that simply set out (truthfully or not) to tell the story of a person’s life. These, to my mind, are among the least interesting of all films, a subject I shall discuss in more detail in the next article. Then there are films for which the word “biopic” is really a misnomer because they are essentially dramas that simply use the biography as a starting-point for their consideration of a broader theme. These can be among the best films ever produced and I will also give several further examples of this category in the article to follow. Kapur’s Bandit Queen seems to me to belong on the whole – the lines are obviously not hard and fast – in the second category.  One factor at least in the difference between Roy and Kapur is the writer’s determination to view the film as a “biopic” (aided by Kapur’s own foolish publicity) and therefore to deny it any of the privileges of a drama.

On the face of it, her most reasonable point of attack concerns Kapur’s failure to actually meet Phoolan, a point she hammers home time and again in the course of the article. While this might indeed seem rather discourteous on the part of the director, the reasons for it are not merely understandable but largely justified.  Whether the film concerned is a biopic or a bio-drama, a closeness to the subject, or a closeness to the subject’s family in the case of a subject (an issue in the case of the Manto films), may seem, at first glance, to be valuable but, with a little thought, one realizes that this is in fact not necessarily the case. A great problem of all biopics is a tendency to be over-respectful, to produce simple hagiographies of the subject. When the subject or the subject’s close family are alive, this requirement for “respect” is likely to become a hugely restrictive factor. In fact a certain distance is required even in producing a reasonably objective “biopic” and for the production of a drama it is absolutely essential. What does Roy want? The Kapur should be a simple spokesman for Phoolan –a recipe neither for imaginative drama nor even for an objective “biopic”? Had she herself written biography, I cannot imagine for a moment that she would have accepted such an obvious restraint on her work.

Whether or not it is the Truth is no longer relevant. The point is that it will, (if it hasn’t already) – become the Truth”. This remark by Roy is a particularly interesting one because it recalls one of the most famous lines from one of the most famous films by one of the famous of all US directors, John Ford. In one of his finest films, The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance (1962)., a distinguished ageing senator (soon perhaps to be a vice-presidential candidate), played by actor James Stewart, relives the events in the past that brought him fame and fortune and launched his political career – the supposedly heroic killing in a shoot-out of a notorious bandit (Liberty Vallance, played by Lee Marvin). He is attending the funeral of his erstwhile cowboy friend (played in the film by John Wayne), who has lived and died in complete obscurity, and admits to journalists present that it was in fact the cowboy Doniphon who shot the outlaw (and not altogether in a fair fight at that), that he is in fact not, as everyone supposes, “the man who shot Liberty Vallance”. When he has finished his story, the journalists refuse to have anything to do with the truth he has told them and which the film has dramatised.  “This is the West, sir,” one remarks drily. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Phoolan Devi’s life had already become a matter of legend  long before Shekhar Kapur came to make his film. There had in fact been an earlier Bengali film based on her life, Asjoh Roy’s Phoolan, in 1985 and, whatever the truth of her story, the legend surrounding her had served an important purpose in helping to secure her favourable terms of surrender. So Roy’s own claims concerning truth are themselves disingenuous. She must have been aware of the Bengali film of 1985, which she does not mention. When she speaks of Phoolna being “legendized”, she must have been aware that the ex-bandit was to some extent herself responsible for that “legendization” (even if innocently like the James Stewart character in the Ford film) and that she (exactly like the character in the Ford film) was the principal beneficiary of that legend. The legend, needless to say, has continued to perpetuate itself, without much obvious help from Kapur, in books (including Phoolan’s own ghost-written account) and plays and films. This is the East, Madame. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend 

Phoolan’s own later account of her life, put together by two ghost-writers (Phoolan herself was illiterate), actually draws on the story of a nineteenth-century US outlaw, Belle Starr (1848-1899), whose life, in the telling at least, followed a remarkably similar trajectory to that of Phoolan Devi. Compare, for instance, these two titles: The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman’s Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend (Phoolan’s ghosted autobiography) and Belle Starr the Bandit Queen: The True Story of the Romantic and Exciting Career of the Daring and Glamorous Lady (a 1941 biography of the US outlaw by “pulp” journalist Burton Rascoe). The “international” authors from whom Phoolan received “aid” (euphemisms abound) were in fact both French. Marie-Therese Cuny is best known as a television presenter and is otherwise the author of Histoires extraordinaires (Extraordinary Stories) and Paul Rambali is a journalist for Les Inrockuptibles, a magazine dedicated to interpreting culture and politics in “cool” style and in l’esprit rock (the spirit of rock). All rather a caution concerning strict authenticity.

Roy’s article is not really a review; it is a polemic. And it is perhaps more important for the questions it raises about the relationship (if any) between film and truth than it for anything that it has to say about Shekhar Kapur’s film. She scoffs at those who consider that “manipulation” is simply “part of life” and she is perhaps right to do so, but “manipulation” is part of film, and always has been, as it is of all art. It is in a sense precisely what distinguishes art (the artificial) from life (the “real”). It is the business of films – all films – to manipulate their audiences and the only distinctions that can validly be drawn are between the purposes for which they do so, The same thing applies to another term often used with regard to film – “exploitation”. Again, it is difficult to see how or even why a film would avoid “exploitation”. It is the purpose of a film – all film – to exploit its subject. Once again, there is no valid distinction between films that exploit and films that do not but only between the motives for that exploitation, This is too large a subject to go into further here but is another I hope to return to in later articles. 

If  manipulation of an audience and exploitation of a subject are both quite natural and unavoidable ingredients of cinema, then certain things have to be accepted and we must live with them as best we can. We have to accept that truth (in the sense simply of fact) is simply not on the menu. It is something that cinema cannot deliver. This does not of course mean that film-makers should not attempt to express “truth” in a btoader sense but, in doing so, they must deploy their imagination rather than their research skills and may need, quite properly, to “manipulate” the fact with which they deal. We have to accept similarly that there is, in its nature, a voyeuristic element in cinema, that it is not possible to portray crime, sex or violence on the screen without providing a certain form of perverse pleasure to the viewer. It is the obligation of the film-maker mot to avoid such portrayals (we would end up with no films at all) but rather to ensure that such portrayals are appropriate to his or her subject and serve the depiction of “truth” in its larger and more important sense.

In practice Phoolan Devi cannot really have been as displeased with the film, and the publicity it brought her, as she pretended. Her opposition to the film in the event was fairly token, dropped in return for cash payment,  and it was almost certainly designed essentially to allow her to dissociate herself from, or deny, any embarrassing elements in the film without, for all that, losing the benefit of the romanesque glamour that it imparted. Perhaps she was using Arundhati Roy for that purpose….or was it not a two-way affair with Roy also opportunistically seizing the opportunity it afforded for her to gain notoriety as a writer? Was Kapur really exploiting the subject for the purposes of his film any more than Roy was exploiting it for the purposes of her article (an important stepping-stone in her career) and was his use of scenes of sexual violence (”gross” and “distasteful” are words employed by Roy although the scenes appear to me to be neither of these things) any more manipulative than Roy’s own calculated use of bad language, which would contribute significantly to her notoriety as a writer.

The fact is that, viewed as a film, and irrespective of the extraneous ethical issues involved, Bandit Queen is excellent, one of the better Indian films of the decade and, as the Indian selection for the Academy Awards of 1995, very unfortunate not to have been nominated in a year when virtually all of the nominees were, more even than usually, quite patently chosen for political reasons. “Phoolan Devi the woman has ceased to be important” snaps Roy. Yet this is precisely where a good film departs from being a mere biopic and becomes a drama of some significance. Yes, Phoolan Devi does cease in some sense, to be important, because the film has become the vector for a story that highlights the predicament, not merely of the one person who is its starting-point but for all women in rural India married and abused in their childhoods and of all women everywhere in the world who find themselves the victims of rape. The difference between the film and Mala Sen’s book 1985 book on which it is based (and which presents the story of Phoolan from various different perspectives) is not that Kapur is incurious, as Roy suggests, but simply that he is making a film and not writing a book and  not every film can be a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a film almost alone in the entire history of cinema in finding a way of presenting such multiple perspectives. That option, perfectly proper for a historian or a biographer, is simply not, generally speaking, possible for a film-director.

The film is not, as Roy claims “a cloying morality tale”. And her question as to whether Phoolan is for the director “a concept? Or just a cunt?” is an altogether unreasonable one. The central character in the drama (forget for a moment whether it is genuinely Phoolan Devi or not), beautifully played by Seema Biswas, is a forceful woman, evidently aware at every stage of the political significance of her choices, who overcomes fearful odds to achieve some kind of redemption. Ironically it is that redemption, which neither Phoolan nor Roy would wish to question and which Kapur could hardly fail to represent, that is perhaps the most doubtful element in the film. Of course the film does not follow the book by Mala Sen with studied fidelity any more than it follows every aspect of the real-life bandit’s long career. It was extremely silly of Kapur to ever suggest that it did either one or the other. But if one looks at the long catalogue by Roy of events included in the book but left out the film, one is impressed by how sensible the scenarist’s decisions have been.  

Left out are scenes that would have created lengthy and rather tedious sub-plots. Left out too are scenes that, even if Phoolan, Sen and Roy believed in them, would seem to most people intrinsically rather improbable, such as the ten-year-old girl’s supposed rebellion against her parents (a story almost impossible for a child-actor to convey with any conviction). Similarly “left out” is Phoolan’s claim that she was not actually present at the Behmai massare in 1981, an account that, even if true, is so evidently self-serving and so evidently necessary to the terms of her 1994 pardon, as to seem totally an audience. Ignored too, and very sensibly, was an implausible claim by Phoolan that all the men killed were certainly known to be those implicated in her rape. Roy is right in detecting a certain false sentimentality in the portrayal of Pholan as moderately virtuous but her accusation that this implies that only strictly virtuous women get raped is patently false, firstly because the character in the film is not quite so virtuous as all that and secondly because it is made clear over and over again that the men concerned do not believe in her virtue. But for Roy, Kapur can do absolutely nothing right.

With regard to the rape scene, Roy, influenced no doubt by popular reactions at the time, considers this absolutely “central” to the film which it does not to me seem to be at all.. Again she seems to want to be able to attack the despised Kapur from every direction at once. So he is accused of basing the scene on a lurid account about Phoolan in a cheap US “stag” (men only) magazine, which she quotes at length but which resembles not at all the scene that appears in the film. On the other hand she accuses him equally of attempting to portray the scene too “tastefully” to pander to a public who prefer who are comfortable with just enough violence but not too much. In fact in the film one sees a multiple rape represented principally by the departure and arrival of the rapists and shots of their feet. This is not first time this device had been used in a film and it has nothing to do with “pandering to the public”. It is simply a form of ellipsis, used by film-makers certainly at ties to avoid censorship but also quite often  as here, as a means of avoiding purely gratuitous and repetitive scenes of brutality. The point is not to see every detail of what happens – only a sadist or a masochist would be interested in that – but simply to und understand clearly and economically what is supposed to have taken place. The scene at the well that follows, which seems to me far more ”central” in its importance, is detached from the scenes of rape (unlike in the US magazine account that Roy quotes where it simply forms part of them) and has a great dignity as well as serving very effectively to remind audiences at just the point where that reminder is necessary, that the issue of sexual violence is in fact secondary to the larger question of women’s subservient position in society of which it is simply one odious symptom. 

What one sees again with the criticisms of Roy is her concern with the idea that films should speak the truth in the sense of relating only fact. Even if the facts could be ascertained with some certainty (and in this case it is most unlikely) that is not the business of a film director.   With regard to the rape scene Roy attacks Kapur from two quite contradictory standpoints 1) for making the rape too central to the story 2) for representing it too “tastefully”. In the first instance it is her own view, not the director’s nor my own as a critic, that the rape is “central” in this way and her claim that Phoolan herself talked only of being teased and humiliated is neither here nor there. The rape had unquestionably become part of the Phoolan Devi story (the legend had already become fact) and would form part of Phoolan’s own later ghosted. In her second criticism, Roy is confusing realism and reality. The first, to represent scenes in a realistic fashion is properly the concern of a film but the second, to reproduce reality in every detail, is thankfully impossible.

To summarise, a director is obliged to tell the truth about the world as he or she sees it but is not obliged, even when recounting a story based on “real life”, to simply stick to facts. Where biography is concerned, a close relationship with the subject is unadvisable because it will tend to deform rather than inform the director’s intentions. The camera lies and the camera must lie, just as the director must exploit the subject and manipulate the audience to achieve the desired effect. What is important is the purpose for which the camera lies and for which the director exploits and manipulates. Whether Bandit Queen tells the “true story”: of Phoolan Devi is a complete irrelevance. What matters is whether of not the story is used to tell a truth about Indian life and Indian society and that each viewer must decide for themselves.

It would not be difficult to imagine a very different film, which told the story of an ordinary poor village girl, teased, humiliated and abused who turns to crime and who, one would surely then be obliged to add, manages to evade the consequences of her crimes by capitalizing on a legend that had arisen concerning her life. I am not sure that such a film would have suited the book either of Shekhar Kapur or of Phoolan Devi or for that mater of Andhurati Roy, but it would probably have been a more realistic account and might even have been a film that I, personally, would have preferred to the very much more dramatic one made by Kapur. But, within his own lights, Kapur has made what appears to me a reasonably truthful drama based on the life (legend rendered fact) of the famous bandit. In his current Hollywood incarnation, making “biopics” of English queens (Elizabeth 1998 and Elizabeth: The Golden Age 2007) and tales of colonial derring-do (The Four Feathers 2002, Kapur may well go on one day to win an Oscar, but I doubt very much if he will ever again make films as good as those he made while he was in India.