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Bandit returns to Chambal for film

- Phoolan companion to play himself

Lucknow, Feb. 21: A former brigand and companion of Phoolan Devi has recreated his life and their turbulent Chambal years in a film where he plays himself.

Maan Singh briefly traded his shovels and ploughs in a Kanpur backwater where he now leads a quiet life as a 55-year-old farmer for greasepaint to star in Beehad — The Ravines. Among its scenes is the 1981 Behmai massacre to which Singh had accompanied Phoolan.

The film is directed by Krishna Mishra, who has a penchant for casting real-life bandits. He had last picked Seema Parihar, a former dacoit and widow of one-time Chambal terror Nirbhay Gujjar, to act out her life in Wounded, a 2007 film that also featured at Cannes that year.

This time, too, Mishra hasn’t strayed from the theme of women bandits. Even his release date for Beehad is carefully picked — March 8, National Women’s Day. “The film is basically about the life of women dacoits,” Mishra told a news conference here earlier this week, Seema by his side.

Then, he explained the larger backdrop against which his latest film is set. “Beehad enlarges the canvas and seeks to chronicle the period from the 1980s to 2006 when the likes of Maan Singh, Kushma Nain, Phoolan and Nirbhay Gujjar ruled the Chambal ravines.”

Next, Mishra drew a portrait of his protagonist. “We should make a special mention of Maan Singh, a real-life dacoit and former companion of Phoolan Devi. He now lives in a Kanpur village. But he was inspired by my project and enacted the incidents that happened around him and Phoolan. The shots are from the real backdrop of the ravines, as soulless and dreary in the film as they are in real life,” said the director who has picked Ravindra Jain to set his movie to tune.

Singh himself recalled at an earlier media interaction how difficult it had been for him to rewind his life. “I was moved to tears as I recreated the events in my life with Phoolan Devi for Mishra’s film.”

According to Uttar Pradesh police, Singh — whose full name Maan Singh Yadav — lived with Phoolan from 1980 to 1983 after the murder of her former lover Vikram Mallah.

Besides being with her during the Behmai massacre in which 21 upper-caste villagers were shot dead — allegedly to avenge Mallah’s killing — Singh had accompanied Phoolan when the pair walked out of the jungles in 1983 to give themselves up to the Madhya Pradesh government.

In accordance with the surrender terms, Singh and Phoolan were supposed to spend at least eight years before being considered for release. They were eventually freed after 11 years, in 1994.

Phoolan later became a Samajwadi Party MP before being assassinated in New Delhi in 2001.

Beehad also features Kushma Nain’s character. Kushma, unlike Phoolan, was from an upper caste. She stomped the Chambal ravines in the 70s, much before Phoolan did.

Phoolan had no love lost for Kushma, now 61 and lodged in an Uttar Pradesh jail, as she suspected her of being involved in Mallah’s murder.

Dinesh Garg, a retired Kanpur University sociology professor, said till the 70s, most Chambal gangs were made up of upper-caste Thakurs who arrogated to themselves the task of protecting their brethren. “But the tables were turned with the arrival of Maan Singh and Vikram Mallah who were from the backward castes. This escalated caste tensions and culminated in the Behmai massacre.”

The Behmai shadow, though, is yet to lift 32 years on, and looms on Beehad as it goes to theatres.

A Kanpur court has been holding trials on the massacre, having started the process only in September last year on orders of Allahabad High Court that asked for daily hearings.

Most of Phoolan’s 30-odd gang members behind the carnage are dead. The trial is focused on eight still alive, government counsel Rajeev Porwal said.