Putlibai begins with a title card touting the fact that it was filmed on location in the ravines of Chambal. The area is notorious for being a hiding place for bandits, including, at one time, that most celebrated of India’s lady bandits, Phoolan Devi, aka The Bandit Queen. Putlibai itself could be said to tell the story of a bandit queen, though it notably does so almost ten years before the fabled exploits of Phoolan Devi. Nonetheless, the film comes across like nothing so much as an early 70s precursor to the countless “Daku” movies churned out by India’s Z movie industry in recent years, which themselves are in no small part indebted to Phoolan Devi for their existence, and in particular to Shekhar Kapur’s controversial film account of her exploits, 1994’s Bandit Queen.
The film stars Indian B movie starlet Jaymala, a leading lady in such 4DK favorites as Spy in Rome and Love and Murder. Jaymala would also later star in 1974’s Gupt Gyan, a hit movie commonly described as India’s first sex education film. I have to admit that I only made it through Gupt Gyan as far as the part where they started showing pictures of actual disease-ravaged genitals, at which point I was rocketed back to vivid memories of vomiting into my lunch bag during “Social Living” class at Berkeley High School.
In any case, I found online an account of Jaymala’s career that refers to her singling out her titular role in Putlibai as her personal favorite, and if that’s true, I can see why. The character’s transformation from glamour-puss dancing girl to death-dealing one-armed lady outlaw certainly offers her quite a range of emotions to play with, and the fierceness she brings to the task is certainly a prime contributor to the film being as enjoyable as it is.
The film begins with notorious dacoit Sultan Singh (played by Bhopuri film star Sujit Kumar) falling hard for the dancer Putli, a development that makes her a person of interest for the local constabulary, who are intent on hunting the bandit down. The police’s constant harassment of Putli becomes so severe that Sultan Singh eventually whisks her away to his encampment for her own protection. Love soon follows, and it is not long before Putli has born the bandit a daughter. Putli returns to her village to raise the child, but is soon forced to flee by the authorities, leaving her daughter behind in the care of another woman.
She has to disguise herself in male drag in order to do it, but Putli nonetheless eventually proves her mettle to Sultan Singh and is made a part of the gang proper. Their days of pillaging the countryside hand-in-hand are short-lived, however, as Sultan Singh is soon murdered by his covetous underling Babu Singh. Even more short-lived is Babu Singh’s term as leader of the gang, as his unwanted advances quickly earn him a chest full of lead from Putli. Now the leader of the gang, Putli sets about getting payback against all the dirty screws responsible for making her and Sultan Singh’s lives miserable.
Putlibai’s opening title card, in addition to trumpeting its location, also gives thanks to the local police for their assistance, which is a bit ironic, given that -- at least from my non-subtitle-assisted take on things -- they are played as the heavies in the film. At least I think it’s fair to say that Putli picks them off with such righteous abandon that you’d think she had some kind of special permit, and nothing in the way their deaths are portrayed indicates that we are expected to shed any tears. That our sympathies should lie with her makes a certain amount of sense once you witness the disproportionate amount of force that the authorities bring to bear upon Putli and her small band. At the conclusion alone, literally hundreds of armed-to-the-teeth officers descend upon the ravine, within moments leaving Putli standing alone before them with her cohorts dead at her feet. Bolstering her underdog status at this point is the fact that an earlier police raid has left her minus one arm, a state of affairs that renders her ability to still squeeze off rounds from her submachine gun all the more impressive.
Putlibai is a perfect example of a perhaps below average Indian film being elevated by an above average score. Jaykumar’s songs for the film are really quite good, marked by thumping rhythms and buoyant, instantly catchy melodies. Especially nice is the Qawwali that comprises the film’s final musical number, Aiseh Besharam Ashiq Hain Yeh Aaj Ke. The picturization of this song is also very effective, in that we see Putli, who began the film as a dancer performing for others, now, as leader of the gang, enjoying tribute from the Qawwali chorus and in return showering them with cash, just as Sultan Singh did her in the beginning.
I enjoyed Putlibai. I may be reading into things, but Jaymala really did seem like she was having a blast, as well she should have. As her wrestling showcase in Spy in Rome demonstrated, she was not one to shy away from physical action, and Putlibai offers her more opportunities for same than I imagine most Bollywood actresses of the day received in a lifetime. She also manages to deliver on the pathos end of things, as well. After all, crime -- no matter how much fun we have watching it being committed -- does not pay, and there always comes in stories such as this that moment in which the transgressor is called to accounts. When that moment came for Putli, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t detect a little bit of actual sadness on her behalf stirring within my spiritually withered frame.
Also check out Aiseh Besharam Ashiq Hain Yeh Aaj Ke