I will admit I don't have the heart right now to read thoroughly about the real-life case of Devi (Nandita Das, every bit as amazing as you'd expect), but from the articles I have skimmed it seems the film presents only some of the injustice, deliberately blinkered pronouncements, and damaging attitudes converging dangerously on her life.
In the film, the people with power follow their own agendas with little or no compassion for or interest in the facts and their contexts. Almost everyone in the film seems determined to maintain the broken system of which they are a part, trampling human rights and basic kindness and decency from the gut-wrenching level of basic personal safety and the right to live free from fear down to accidental evidence-tampering and inappropriate grabs at celebrity. It's full of people who act out of self-interest, some because they are corrupt or afraid, some because they are oblivious or lazy. It's a frightening portrait of how ridiculous humans can be.
While it is absolutely crucial that films like this exist at all, I also cannot help but wish this particular one were more elegantly made (which is not dissimilar to my reaction to Amu). The performances are fantastic and the overall look evocative, but is there not a way for characters' dialogues to sound like actual speech instead of lists of bullet points prepared for government committee meetings? There is so much a film can say without literally outlining philosophies—though maybe that effect is part of the point of the film, that people speak (and act) without thinking and tend to repeat what they've been taught without questioning or re-contextualizing—the strongest moments of Bawandar shine when the filmmakers simply show the pain and injustice of the story, and the depiction of the events is very effective.
The narrative device set up to show them is the weakest link; it's so poorly integrated and hokey that I could easily believe that it was tacked on at the last minute. The film is framed within a current investigation of the events (which happened several years earlier) by British student Amy (Laila Rouass, whom I only know from the trashtacular show Footballers' Wives and barley recognized here) and her Indian friend Ravi (Rahul Khanna). It's not so bad when these two young visitors experience Devi's story through research and interviews with key players—after all, most of us viewers are outsiders too, so Amy and Ravi are a sensible way to lead us into this almost unbelievable situation—but Amy's voiceovers of her writeup of her research are insultingly simplistic, as are her exchanges with Ravi over travel-guide-preface material like "India is a land of contrasts!", "But what about 'kitchen fires' and dowries?!?!", and "That's just another western perversion!"
To illustrate the kind of injustice that runs throughout this story, I will say a bit more about the scene of Bhanwari Devi's trial. The final courtroom judgment hinges on staggering ignorance as the judge states that an older man could not possibly perform sexually in the presence of a younger family member (his nephew, in this story) and that a high-caste man would never even touch a lower caste woman, let alone have a physical relationship with her. From what I've read, these are the real-life judge's actual decisions. When Lillette Dubey, playing a women's rights advocate from Delhi, shouts out in the court room "[Rape] is not about sex. It's about subjugation!" I wanted to leap to my feet and join her.
Even when Bawandar is less graceful than I'd like, it clearly shows how complicated the basic components of this story, and of social change at all, are, how blindingly frustrating it must be to work for the simplest of improvements or rights within an attempt at cultural relativism. Education, class, location, and power are no sure markers of what people believe or what they are willing to do.
Doctors, police, lawyers, Delhi politicians, activists, other women affiliated with the justice system...one after the other they demonstrate how little they understand are care about what actually happened and why. Each of us, then, has a role to play in making the world a better place. We can be products of ancient and now-criticized cultural systems and still be proponents of change.
Read more about Bawandar in The Hindu and on Doc Bollywood. And as an attempt at palette-cleansing, join Amy in dreamily mulling over her ramped-up relationship with Ravi.
Believe it or not, I don't include this shot just for the pixelated brain-candy of post-shag Rahul Khanna; it's a poignant contrast of sex as affection and mutuality, as well as the freedoms of the wealthier, mobile, and foreign (Amy)/foreign-returned (Ravi).