Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched comes to Indian theatres after a year-long run on the international film festival circuit starting with its global premiere at Toronto 2015.
In terms of storylines, Parched – co-produced by Ajay Devgn, no less – is to impoverished women of rural India what last week’s much-acclaimed release Pink is to educated, middle-class urban Indian women: both films are about the physical dangers, prejudice and discrimination women face in contemporary society, and the consequences of rebellion.
Parched revolves around three friends in a Rajasthan village. Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) has been a widow for years now. When he was alive, her husband used to beat her mercilessly. Now she has an old mother-in-law to take care of and a wayward son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) who she is anxious to marry off. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is childless, chatty and married to a sadistic alcoholic. The women of the village have begun earning money through their handicraft skills, a development that causes insecurity and anxiety among the men.
Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is the one bright spark in their miserable existence, an erotic dancer and sex worker in a local entertainment company who might traditionally be viewed as the most enchained of the lot, yet speaks her mind more often than Rani and Lajjo would dare.
In the presence of others, these two are cowering, simpering creatures who never question their lot. In their time together though and especially when they are with Bijli, unfettered by abusive hands or social scrutiny, they are unrecognisable: lively women who speak freely of sex, love, lust, their hopes and dreams.
The most interesting part of Parched is its sense of humour, which rears its head unexpectedly in the midst of bleak circumstances.
When the women are laughing together, cracking jokes about their bodies and their men, they make you smile. How, you wonder, can they find it in themselves to forget for even a second, the horrors that await them back home? Yet they do. And you cannot but love them for that miraculous ability.
Equally telling are the moments when they turn on each other. Rani’s harshness towards her under-age daughter-in-law Janaki (Lehar Khan) and a flash of anger directed at Bijli in one scene are reminders of how women participate in the patriarchy that dehumanises and subjugates them.
Chatterjee is efficient as Rani, Apte is a live wire and Chawla is a revelation. The supporting cast too is dotted with interesting actors though young Khan and Sen deserve a special mention for their sure-footedness. Elevating the film by several notches is Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter who bathes Parched in warm flames and bright sunlight by turns, paying equal attention to the beauty of the landscape, the colourful attire of its inhabitants and the lovely faces of the sensuous women at the centre of the story.
Yet Parched is a curiously unsatisfying experience. The issues it highlights – domestic violence, marital rape, child marriage, male entitlement – are the sort that would naturally draw empathy from a considerate viewer. Why then is it not as gripping as might be expected?
The answer lies in the fact that Parched shares more than a theme with Pink, it also shares a weakness: an extreme awareness of being a film created specifically to send out a message about women’s rights. This awareness was evident in the trite titling of Pink and in the needless layers of drama laid on thick in the courtroom scenes.
Both elements were far removed from the naturally flowing sensitivity of the rest of the narrative. Pink worked, nevertheless, because its self-consciousness was not all-pervasive, and because it got so completely under the skin of its brilliantly acted female protagonists that their battles became our battles.
Parched is rarely able to get past its mindfulness of being a film with a message, thus failing to lose itself in a story of real people with real, heart-wrenching problems. There was a scene in Kanu Behl’s Titli last year, in which a man reaches out to his new bride in a tiny bedroom of the hovel they share with his family, and she wrestles with him wordlessly, determined to resist his carnal overtures while he seems equally determined to claim the body he considers his right.
It is a scene that gives me goosebumps of fear at the very memory of it. I cannot think of a single moment in Parched that as effectively made me feel the pain these three women feel. Instead, I found myself in the role of a concerned bystander, not an absorbed, involved viewer.
The problem is with both the direction and writing by Yadav who earlier helmed Shabd and Teen Patti. Apart from the detached nature of the storytelling, there are too many contrivances thrown in for effect. A nameless, faceless caller seeking a telephone romance appears to have been introduced for no reason other than to give the target of his affection the chance to reject him at a later stage. The final scenes juxtaposed against Dussehra celebrations in the village take a cliched, superficial view of the Ramayan’s good-vs-evil battle, apparently forgetting long-standing discussions on the mistreatment of Sita, among other things.
The film is also rather literal in its definition of “escape”. If good folk vacate every space where they face resistance or exploitation, what is left behind? Does escape necessarily mean a physical exit, and is such an exit even possible for most people?
Parched also seems designed to appeal to a foreign film festival crowd that might buy into a dose of good ol’ Indian exotica. Nothing exemplifies this better than the handsome, dhoti-clad mysterious stranger of the film (played by Adil Hussain) who makes love to women with his words and hands, driving them to otherworlds of ecstasy.
That the credits identify him as “mystic lover” is amusing, a label no doubt coined to conjure up visions of The Land of the Kama Sutra as India was known before the anti-rape movement grabbed headlines in recent years, a culture where women may experience unbounded sexual pleasure far removed from spousal savagery.
There is a problem with that imagery though. It is a fantasy. Just like the film’s climax, which may be written to draw cheers, but is too conveniently wrapped up, too rushed and too far removed from reality to match the tone of the early scenes in Parched.
This determination to pointedly dole out lessons to an audience can be the death knell of any film. The primary purpose has to be to tell a story. If you are a socially sensitive storyteller, the lessons will automatically follow. Listing out the lessons first and then building a story around them is not filmmaking; that approach is better suited to moral science classes, protest marches, newspaper columns and seminars.
Radhika Apte’s laughter and Surveen Chawla’s dynamism are a pleasure to behold in Parched. The women’s hesitant exploration of each other in forbidden areas is riveting, as is the vein of comedy in each of them. The film is only episodically engaging though. In its entirety, Parched left me thirsting for much much more.