A personality cult – India Today


By Irene Frain
Lotus Collection, Roli Books

Price:Rs 125

In one respect, at least, reconstructing Phoolan Devi’s story is a bit like trying to produce a faithful account of India: almost any claim you make about things that matter can immediately, and sometimes convincingly, be contradicted.

There are no precise, clear and well-defined outlines to Phoolan’s sensational life and career, important episodes are blurred by differing versions, and her temperament is difficult to pin down. Whereas these factors may be true of many public figures, most of them haven’t led a life like hers.

That is what exerts so powerful an attraction to her story for writers and film-makers, other than the bare facts of a low caste child bride, waylaid into a life of sexual abuse and violent crime, who fought back.

The themes of survival in the face of oppression and adversity, a woman reordering the rules laid down by men, and the outlaw becoming a cult figure – all these contain elements of the legendary embossed upon the ordinary. Until Phoolan Devi gives us the authorised version – now in the works – her story will remain open to interpretation.

And so long as her suit against the controversial film Bandit Queen unfolds in Indian courts – even while it wins plaudits around the world – those interpretations will continue to sell. For, as is well known, one of the cynical rules of the market-place is that controversies help push sales.

Phoolan Devi: A life misinterpreted?

That must be the only reason why this book by a French journalist should suddenly materialise to lure Indian readers who are otherwise quite up-to-date on the Phoolan saga. A lot of it reads like fantasy and some of it is downright sleaze.

Irene Frain claims that she interviewed Phoolan Devi in Gwalior jail (this is likely) but Phoolan says she has no memory of the meeting as she met many foreign journalists during her 11 long years there. But to cover her tracks and as a safety measure against possible legal action, Frain disguises her book as partial fiction.

It is Frain’s interpretation of Phoolan’s life, “my own perception of her reality”. This apparently provides her with free-ranging opportunities to overlook chunks of Phoolan’s life, introduce torrid love scenes, invent dialogue and situations and take liberties with elementary facts and conventions. Phoolan is referred to as “Devi” throughout and on occasion as “Madame”. Her rapists, Lal Ram and Sri Ram, are nicknamed “Boss” and “Tool Box”.


Standing on one leg, her forehead wrinkled in deep concentration, she continued to pumice the inside of her thighs. A cluster of bubbles from the shirt flowed towards her. She raised her eyes towards the track. Huddled up at the bottom of the steep slope, Kailash felt her bold gaze on him. She didn’t try to hide herself. She threw down her pumice stone and turned to face him. Then she snapped in a husky voice: “Give me the soap!” Within five minutes they had made love.

She is portrayed as a killer in the Behmai massacre (a charge Phoolan has consistently denied and one that so far remains unproven) and a man-eating seductress at other times.

Vikram Mallah, her one-time fellow gangster and lover, is turned into a lovesick Romeo and their affair into a mushy women’s magazine serial.

Phoolan’s gang-rape is ineptly handled, its horror is tinged with farce: “… all she could remember about him was his smell, that of Thakur curry mingled with the stench of perspiration”.

In such a remorseless and revolting fashion does Frain grind on, that the reader may wonder whether there is any standard at all to compare her yarn-spinning ability with.

Indeed, there is. Till such time as Phoolan Devi’s own version is published, Mala Sen’s book remains the most thorough and honourable work on Phoolan Devi’s life.

For the irony is that although Sen is now a defendant in Phoolan’s suit against Bandit Queen, it is in her role as the film’s screenplay writer and not as the author of the book on which the film is based.

The injunction exists against the film in India, not against this or any other book. In fact, one of the points Phoolan’s petition makes is that the film is not faithful to the book, thereby acknowledging the book’s authenticity.

Why then did Frain rush in where others have trodden so warily? There can only be one explanation for her going so far astray: the smell of money.


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