INTRODUCING his feisty Bandit Queen at a World Film Festival screening, Indian director Shekhar Kapur made the sad announcement that his movie had been banned that very day from exhibition in its own country.
While such censorship is always indefensible, Kapur's movie seems designed to stir up as many passions as possible, both positive and negative. It chronicles the exploits of Phoolan Devi, a real-life outlaw who spent several years as a sort of female Robin Hood, rebelling against an unjust social system and launching raids against members of the higher castes until her arrest in 1983. She was released from prison earlier this year, and the film is partly based on a diary she kept during her 11 years of incarceration.
Already a hit at the Cannes filmfest last spring, ``Bandit Queen'' tells its tale with a melodramatic gusto more reminiscent of a Hollywood action picture than an Indian art film. At its best, it makes an emphatic case against the systematic oppression of poor people and women, and calls attention to the caste system still troubling India today. At its worst, it lapses into repetitive scenes of violence that extend its arguments without deepening them. In all, it's a flawed movie. Yet its very existence - and the attention it has provoked among censorship authorities - illustrates the increasing visibility of poverty, oppression, and violence against women as major issues in world cinema.