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'Bandit Queen' Eligible for Oscar Try : Movies: But producer S. S. Bedi's controversial film still faces a last hurdle--it needs to be nominated.

November 04, 1994|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After traveling from India to Hollywood to appeal for Academy Award eligibility for his controversial film, "The Bandit Queen," producer S. S. (Bobby) Bedi has won assurances that it had qualified for entry all along.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences informed him last Friday that, unlike domestic movies that must have a seven-day run in order to qualify for Oscar consideration, films in the foreign language category must only have had a single public screening in their country of origin--a standard met by "Bandit Queen," which played for a day before the Delhi High Court issued a nationwide stay against screening the film in public or in private.

India's Censor Board sought the ban and is demanding cuts before the film can be shown. The board wants to eliminate profanity, rape sequences and references to the landowning Thakurs, who are portrayed as villains. Bedi contends that the censors' objections are based on the film's critical portrayal of caste injustice.

Bedi also benefited from the fact that the academy had granted an extension of the Oct. 31 submission deadline to the Indian Film Federation, the body responsible for selecting the country's official entry. The group had written to request more time in light of the country's cholera plague.

When the producer returns from the London Film Festival, where "Bandit Queen" is being screened today, he intends to make the federation his next target. "Getting them to nominate the film is the only hurdle left to cross," observed the 38-year-old Bedi. "Though they might decide to oppose the film because the government did, I'm optimistic. The ban--after the overwhelmingly positive reviews at film festivals in Toronto, Montreal, Tokyo and Edinburgh--has made the movie a cause celebre at home and abroad."

The controversy has been fed by a breach of privacy suit by Phoolan Devi, whose life it purports to portray.

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The $1.4-million "Bandit Queen"--which Kushwant Singh, India's best-known newspaper columnist, called the best Indian movie he had ever seen--relates the tale of a member of the lowly Mallah caste who, at age 11, is sold into marriage in exchange for a cow and a bicycle. After repeated rapes and the murder of her lover, she picks up a gun and takes revenge on the higher-class Thakurs. In 1981, Devi was charged with the murder of 22 members of that caste--an allegation she denied before being imprisoned without trial for 11 years. She was released from jail this year.

"The film should be called a work of imagination and not my real life story," Devi told The Times.

Devi's opposition to the film, Bedi suggests, stems from the fact that she may be running for political office and is fearful of negative publicity. And the High Court would like nothing better than to thwart the movie's Oscar prospects because of its unflattering view of India, he claims. Another hearing on "Bandit Queen" has been scheduled for Monday, at which time the authorities will review the decision to ban the movie unless certain scenes depicting sex, violence and material insulting to the Thakurs are snipped.

"Without cuts, it's impossible the movie will be shown," Bedi said. "With cuts, there would be nothing left of the film--it would become 'Mickey Mouse III.' Rape and child molestation, after all, are at the heart of the point that I'm making. Although the government and the censor board permitted "Schindler's List" to be shown with far more nudity and violence than mine, 'The Bandit Queen' hits too close to home. The last time the caste system was this seriously attacked was by Mahatma Gandhi, who took a peaceful approach. This film makes you hate yourself, as a country and as an individual."

Failing in his effort to have the ban lifted, Bedi--whose previous film "Electric Moon" (1991) dealt with the real-life practice by former Indian Maharajis of peddling bogus elephant safaris and other cultural artifacts to unsuspecting tourists--headed for Los Angeles to plead his case. The producer says he found the group unusually sympathetic.

Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy, pointed out, however, that no rules were bent.

"Mr. Bedi was asking for special treatment," he said. "But if we start playing that game, it will come back to haunt us. We've heard wonderful things about his film, but how do we know that it is the best one out of India this year? If we start making that determination instead of relying on the committees in the respective countries to do so, we'd be vulnerable to anyone who comes over here with a good public relations person."

"Bandit Queen," which was directed by Shekhar Kapur, is not the first foreign language film to encounter political opposition in its search for an Oscar. "Farewell My Concubine" was banned in China but, because a number of its creators were born in Hong Kong, was ultimately submitted by that country. China also asked that the nomination of "The Story of Ju Dou" be rescinded--a request the academy ultimately turned down.

Should the Indian Film Federation decide to bypass Bedi's film, there's still a possibility that "Bandit Queen" could compete in other categories. In an ironic twist, if the movie has a seven-day run in Los Angeles County by Dec. 31, it would qualify for all the narrative categories--except foreign language film.

Insiders consider this an improbable scenario, however. "The chance of lining up a North American distribution deal and showing the movie in the next eight weeks is a long shot," said one person close to the proceedings. "As good as the movie is, the business just doesn't work that fast."

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