Two Actresses Vie to Escape Hollywood's Caste System—by Playing India's Bandit Queen

UPDATED 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

It has all the makings of a Third World Bonnie and Clyde, with a dash of Patty Hearst to boot. A young Indian peasant girl is cast out by her husband and falls in with a band of desperadoes. The head dacoit (bandit) makes her his mistress and partner in robbing the rich and giving to the poor (after they take their own cut, for expenses). But love on the run is stopped in its tracks when the dacoit is killed by other robbers. Swearing revenge, she leads the band of cutthroats to a village, where they massacre 20 men for harboring her lover's murderers. Finally, with capture imminent, the legendary gang leader gives herself up before a star-struck crowd of thousands.

When Phoolan Devi, 28, surrendered to the authorities of Madhya Pradesh in February 1983, she closed the book on India's most notorious woman outlaw, but she may have started a new chapter in Hollywood. Her surrender has captured the attention of two fiercely determined women, Susie Bono and Persis Khambatta, both of Indian descent, both models turned actresses. Each has independently glommed on to Devi's story as a chance to land a plum role in a city with a notable partiality to Caucasian actresses. Khambatta, in her mid-30s, is better known as the bald-headed Ilia in Star Trek—The Motion Picture. She has already raised $6 million and has a script ready for a projected Oct. 1 start for filming. While Khambatta is clearly in the lead, Bono, 30—best known as Sonny's third wife—undoubtedly has the inside track with the notorious Phoolan Devi herself. Dressed in a sari and a tika (the forehead mark signifying a married woman), Bono traveled to Gwalior, some 200 miles south of New Delhi, where Devi is jailed, and began a monthlong, four-hour-a-day conversation with the bandit, who proved to be "like this sweet little girl."

Each day Devi cooked fiery curry for her interviewer and, in a short time, says Bono, the pair became "as close as sisters. I threw my arms about her and we would laugh. She pointed to my running shoes and said she once had shoes like that. I told her how in America we don't get much exercise so we have to jog. 'That's ridiculous,' she said. 'I'm all the time running...from the police.' " Bono says that at first she wanted to write a book "about a girl who comes to India and discovers her roots." But, then, "Phoolan tied a scarf around my head and said, 'I make you Phoolan. Only you can play Phoolan in a movie. Only you can tell the true story.' " Currently serving three years for lesser crimes, the female bandit faces trial on at least 40 charges, including murder and armed robbery. She granted Susie exclusive rights to her life story for an undisclosed fee, a bargain the two women sealed by placing their thumbprints on a simple contract—Devi is illiterate.

"I was a displaced Indian in America," explains Bono. "I'd never confronted my roots. I started dreaming about this girl. I had visions of me with her in jail. I kept thinking, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' It could have been my story."

Well, hardly. Whereas Devi was the daughter of a low-caste boatman who married her off, with meager dowry, at age 11, Bono was born in England to a well-heeled family. Her Indian-born father, a college professor, came to the U.S. to rear his brood in Bethesda, Md. An aspiring actress who currently co-hosts the TV show On Stage America, Susie lives with Sonny on a Beverly Hills estate valued at more than $2 million. Before she learned of Devi she resented any reference to her Indian heritage—a detail that, under the circumstances, her rival Khambatta finds "curious." Susie readily admits that "when I was growing up in Bethesda, I didn't want to hear about India. All I wanted to hear about was being a cheerleader."

Enter Persis Khambatta, whose quest for Devi's story has its own peculiar taste of destiny. A successful model in India, Khambatta left for England at 16. Her modeling career was thwarted when someone stole her portfolio. "It was as if I was being told to try something else," she says. As it happens, that "something else" was the Silver Screen—notably Star Trek, The Wilby Conspiracy with Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier and Nighthawks with Sylvester Stallone. Now, with Phoolan Devi's story, Khambatta may be coming full circle to discover fame and fortune at home.

A beauty of strong will, Khambatta is candid about her full-bore pursuit of Devi's story. "There are not many good roles for women in Hollywood," she says. "So you see Goldie Hawn and Barbra Streisand producing. And that's what I'm doing." Bono faults Khambatta for making no effort to meet her incarcerated subject, but Persis, who fashioned her script out of press clips, says she has deliberately not made the pilgrimage to Gwalior, "As an actress," she says, "I didn't want to be influenced by her. I have this romantic vision of her and I don't want to alter it." She adds that Devi is said to be short and unattractive, hardly what she has in mind for herself in the film. Bono vows her movie will be true to the facts, "or I won't make it."

Meanwhile Bono is consulting lawyers to protect her rights. She has also sent news of Khambatta's preparations to the prisoner in Gwalior. This was definitely a less than generous act: It's been rumored that Devi discouraged another would-be filmmaker by threatening to have him shot. Khambatta is not impressed. "I've always done what I wanted to do," she says. "This is no exception."

Back in Gwalior, Devi sits in jail with several dacoits, who voluntarily surrendered when their leader did. They laugh, harangue the guards for cigarettes and are generally oblivious to the contention between actresses continents away.

"She will send for me," says Bono. "Basically, we're two souls. Our bodies and circumstances are different, but there's a spiritual connection."

For Khambatta the connection is not so ethereal. "I hope this movie does as much good as Star Trek did for me," she says. "Only this time with hair."

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