Shekhar Kapur made a movie, Bandit Queen (1994), about Phoolan Devi's life up to her 1983 surrender, based on Mala Sen's 1993 book India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi.
Although Phoolan Devi is a heroine in the film, she fiercely disputed its accuracy and fought to get it banned in India. She even threatened to immolate herself outside a theater if the film were not withdrawn. Eventually, she withdrew her objections after the producer Channel 4 paid her £40,000.
The film brought her international recognition. Author-activist Arundhati Roy in her film review entitled, "The Great Indian Rape Trick", questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission", and charged Shekhar Kapur with exploiting Phoolan Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.
So much for a movie. How does one remember the real Bandit Queen?
A fiery symbol against caste oppression, a criminal in the eyes of the law, a saviour in the eyes of some. A subject of a highly controversial biopic yet a woman who believed in writing her own story, and writing it on her own terms.
Do you decide to tell her story as a fearsome dacoit, one who had a price on her head, evaded police capture for two years, and terrorised police forces in Uttar Pradesh?
Or do you describe her as a rape survivor and avenger, one who decided to take revenge for her gangrape by allegedly shooting 22 Thakurs in Behmai?
Or do you tell the story of Phoolan Devi, the politician? The politically shrewd two-time MP who, after spending 11 years in a jail, won elections with aplomb?
For many from the oppressed classes, she was a pioneer, a hero to look up to with her defiant violence against systems of oppression. On the other hand, for many, she was a law-breaker who got what she deserved. Phoolan Devi was a paradox, defined by courage and a defiant roar at the powers that be. This was a woman who lived like a rebel, but didn’t die like one.