Directed By: Leena Yadav
Written By: Leena Yadav
Tannishtha Chatterjee – Rani
Radhika Apte – Lajjo
Surveen Chawla – Bijli
Riddhi Sen – Gulab, Rani’s son
Lehar Khan – Janki, Gulab’s wife
Sumeet Vyas – Kishen
Mahesh Balraj – Manoj
Chandan Anand – Rajesh (Raju)
Sayani Gupta – Champa
Adil Hussain – Mystic lover
Language: Hindi; Gujarati Genre: Drama
Leena Yadav’s Parched is a women-centric film but unlike how it is represented, it isn’t just a movie about the abuse faced by rural women. In fact, abuse is one of the themes taken for granted throughout the narrative. Almost every female character faces it or is assumed to have faced it in the past.
Instead, the film is more about thirst. Sexual thirst – the act of being parched for pleasure, kindness, appreciation and recognition. Most Indian women, according to Sudhir and Katharina Kakar’s book The Indians have never experienced sexual pleasure. Sex for them is painful and a duty. And pleasure – a myth. Parched, then details what women talk about amongst themselves – how they wish to discover pleasure or try to find happiness in other things so that they can brush aside the glaring need for human intimacy that they have.
The three main women that the narrative revolves around are Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla).
Rani is the respectable widow who is getting her son married to Janki (Lehar Khan) from another village. In flashbacks and through the one-sided conversations with her invalid mother in-law we see that she has never truly known happiness and had to put aside her books because a well-read woman cannot run a house. The irony is, she uses the same lines on Janki who wishes to study. More than anything, it tells the viewers what her mother in-law may have faced and how she too may have knuckled under societal pressure to follow norms.
Lajjo is known as the barren woman who is however, a skilled handloom worker. She is frequently seen sporting bruise marks – the handiwork of her husband Manoj (Mahesh Balraj). She is an innocent character who has romantic notions and jokes about being barren, though no one laughs. Rani is who she runs to for comfort when her husband’s abuse gets out of hand.
Bijli, on the other hand, is an erotic dancer who also satisfies the needs of the village men whenever she is asked to. She occasionally refuses and plays the diva but is frequently told that as a whore she should know her place. For Rani and Lajjo, she is the breath of fresh air and brings news from the outside world that they have never seen. She is also the only one among them who has experienced some pleasure in sex. They scoff at her stories of a man who treated her body as a temple because such a man does not exist in their opinion.
Women have no autonomy over their bodies and a pivotal scene that occurs in the beginning of the film is before the panchayat. A woman, Champa (Sayani Gupta) walked out on her marriage because of the abuse she faced but the sarpanch decrees that she must return because otherwise it will bring dishonour on the village. She loudly proclaims that she is being raped and abused by her in-laws but instead she is herded into the vehicle and the sarpanch is seen consoling the father that she will come to understand and accept it.
However, mirroring this scene is that of the women’s representative at the panchayat asking for the television to be brought in. The panchayat feel that there is no need for it, plus the mobile phones they asked for has been nuisance enough. They also claim that the expenses for the cable connection can’t be borne. But the women offer to pay for it from their savings through the handloom work.
So the changes that do come in are because of the women and this frightens some of the men who feel it emasculates them. Such as Gulab (Riddhi Sen) and his friends, who feels Kishen (Sumeet Vyas), a local entrepreneur, has brainwashed the women into believing that their handloom work can make them independent and self-sufficient. Kishen’s ‘foreign’ wife, as they refer to the Manipuri lady who is a teacher at the neighbouring village, is also to blame because she stands for unacceptable modern practises.
Alongside the abuse is the agency these women possess. They support each other and many of these women rebel unobtrusively. In fact, the frequent motif of travel such as in the beginning of the film when Rani and Lajjo are travelling by bus is one such rebellion because Lajjo lets the wind blow away her pallu (long cloth covering the hair and sometimes face – a societal norm expected of women in public in many communities as a sign of submission). The wind blowing the hair that is so often covered is a running motif in the film because it is a forbidden pleasure.
The film is about them choosing for themselves within their own constraints, be it Janki choosing to study as well as help Rani with housework, even if she has to do it secretly. The film also has elements of homoeroticism especially in Rani and Lajjo’s relationship but it isn’t the simplistic reading that Deepa Mehta’s Fire gave to lesbianism which was, neglectful husbands = lesbian relationship. It is rather that, in a world where women do not experience intimacy, their female friends fill that void. Considering no one really questions the homoeroticism in Fight Club between Edward Norton’s character and Tyler (Brad Pitt), I suppose this could be met with similar nonchalance.
The film is a truly positive experience despite the startlingly real violence in it as it also about the agency of women. It has humour and poignancy in its portrayal of women’s experiences.