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Bandit Queen turns 28: Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Saurabh Shukla recall how they became part of Shekhar Kapur’s iconic film

Bandit Queen, which completes 28 years of release, gave Bollywood a line-up of brilliant actors who went on to carve a niche for themselves, including Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla and Gajraj Rao.

Written by Mimansa Shekhar | New Delhi |
Updated: January 27, 2022 3:07:40 pm
seema biswas bandit queenSeema Biswas played the titular role of Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur directed Bandit Queen. (Photo: Express Archives)

With a filmography as impressive as his, it is nothing short of a stamp of approval when Shekhar Kapur calls Bandit Queen his best film. Depicting the life of Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen (1994) was both controversial and a masterpiece, which had caused something of an upheaval in India when it released. Kapur, in a tweet dated 2019, had written, “It was shot completely intuitively. And hope I can make another film like that.”

Bandit Queen, which completes 28 years of release today, is based on the book – India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi by the Indian author Mala Sen. It traced the life of Phoolan Devi and what forced her to turn into one of the most notorious dacoits of the Chambal in 1980s.

Bandit Queen had several things working in its favour. From Seema Biswas’ near brilliant act of getting under the skin of the dacoit to the recreation of the era, everything pushed Bandit Queen to become a point of reference for filmmakers.

Nearly three decades on, the film holds credit for giving Bollywood a line-up of brilliant actors, who were struggling to find their ground in films back then, but later on carved a niche for themselves. And a major credit for this goes to casting director Tigmanshu Dhulia (now filmmaker and actor himself). The cast included Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Saurabh Shukla, Raghuvir Yadav, Nirmal Pandey, Aditya Srivastava, Rajesh Vivek and Govind Namdev, among others.

Bandit Queen’s major casting happened from the Delhi theatre scene, and the aforementioned actors were active in the circuit back then. Bajpayee, who played dacoit Maan Singh in the biographical drama, credits Dhulia and Kapur “for really starting” his cinema career.

In a previous interaction with indianexpress.com, Bajpayee shared that since most of the cast hailed from Delhi theatre, “this film was like a big party for us, for all the three months we were in Chambal.”

bandit queen scenes Manoj Bajpayee played the role of Daku Maan Singh in Seema Biswas starrer Bandit Queen.

Gajrao Rao, who got to share screen space with Bajpayee after years in last year’s Netflix release Ray (Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa) also recalled getting cast for Bandit Queen. He told indianexpress.com, “News spread that auditions are going on for Bandit Queen which was to be shot near Delhi. Casting director and first AD of the movie Tigmanshu Dhulia had seen my theatre work. So, he asked me to audition.”

Rao said that though Shekhar Kapur was very polite to him during the audition, “he (Kapur) asked me whether I would be scared facing the camera for the first time.” But Rao also revealed that he never got to say a monologue he had prepared especially for the task, which left him wondering whether he had lost the role. “Tigmanshu Dhulia told me I had been selected. Then I signed a contract for the first time in my life with BBC Channel Four and received a 10 percent advance amount of my fees. It was a remarkable feeling.”

Saurabh Shukla, on the other hand, had to initially let go of Bandit Queen auditions because he had screen tested for two other projects in Mumbai — a TV series for BBC based on Habib Qureshi’s novel and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. But none of the two projects fell into place.

bandit queen saurabh shukla seema biswas scenes Saurabh Shukla and Seema Biswas in a still from Bandit Queen.

“One day, Shekhar came to watch Seema’s play which I used to open. After it got over, he called me backstage. He looked at me silently for a long time and just left. I got confused. Tigmanshu later told me I need to travel to Dholpur tomorrow where the film was to be shot. I asked whether it was for a small role and he said right now only main actors were travelling. So if I am being sent, it is for some major role only. Later Shekhar revealed to me that when he came to watch that play, he decided then and there that he wanted me for his film,” Saurabh Shukla told us.

Shukla’s first shot for the film, however, wasn’t a smooth one as he and Seema would keep falling off a bicycle which she was riding uphill with Shukla sitting with her.

Gajraj Rao, on the contrary, wasn’t aware of what “stand-by” meant on the first day. He thought that the unit has brought in another actor as his stand-by. Later when he got to know that in his first shot, he had to molest Seema, who was his senior from theatre, he felt nervous.

“I had to come from behind and grab her. And I was really scared. She lovingly told me that ‘Gajraj, this is part of the story and you don’t need to feel reluctant.’ It was a critical scene in the movie and I will never forget how nervous I was,” Rao told to us. “We were friends. And we have always been friends,” Manoj Bajpayee said.

While most of the cast continues to remain thick friends, Shekhar Kapur is credited for giving Bollywood a milestone film that went on to win the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, apart from Filmfare Critics Award for Best Movie and Best Direction and many more.

Bandit Queen was also selected as India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 67th Academy Awards, though it couldn’t make the final nomination cut.

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