Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched thoughtfully examines the sorry state of gender equality in rural India. Brave performances by a talented cast give context to a complex, entrenched culture that dehumanizes women.
The culture is explored through the experiences of four very different women: an infertile wife named Lajjo (Radhika Apte), a 15-year-old newlywed named Janaki (Lehar Khan), a dancer and prostitute named Bijli (Surveen Chawla), and a 32-year-old widow named Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee). Rani is the link between the other women: a longtime friend to Bijli, a neighbor and buddy to Lajjo, and Janaki’s mother-in-law.
Rani is a difficult and unconventional lead, for sure. One is conditioned to expect a pivotal character like Rani to be an agent for change, especially when she’s being played by an immense talent like Chatterjee, but that’s not who she is. Rani is surprisingly ordinary.
Take her first scenes in the film. On a visit to a neighboring town to arrange a bride for her drunken waste of a son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), Rani coos over young Janaki’s beauty, deliberately ignoring the terrified expression on the girl’s face and offering her no comfort.
When Rani returns from her trip, she and Lajjo sit passively through a disheartening town meeting. Another young bride, Champa (Sayani Gupta), fled to her parents’ home after enduring repeated rapes by her brother- and father-in-law, but the male heads of the village insist on sending her back to her husband, even if it means her death. The leader of the village women offers to pool the money they earn selling handicrafts to buy a communal TV, giving the women something to do while their husbands are away, working as long-haul truckers. The men laugh, jokingly wondering if the women will start wanting to wear jeans next. Rani and Lajjo laugh, too.
With each successive horrible thing that happens to a woman in Parched because of her gender, one wonders what will be the final straw. When will Rani and her friends finally make a stand? This isn’t that kind of movie.
Millions of women live in these kind of conditions, and Parched explores how they do that when there’s no one to appeal to, where there’s literally nowhere to run. Even Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) — the man who brokers sales of the women’s handicrafts — can only do so much when the rest of the men resent him. Among the women, Lajjo personifies resilience, her bright eyes shining at the prospect of a day of hooky, regardless of the hell it will cost her at the hands of her abusive husband, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj).
Yadav emphasizes that there is more to lives of her characters than just suffering. There is room for joy and friendship, along with unmet sexual desires. All four female leads have suffered sexual abuse, yet the desire for sexual gratification remains, even if hope for an attentive, caring partner is dim. When Bijli vividly describes an encounter with a man exclusively concerned with satisfying her needs, Rani and Lajjo dismiss her story as fantasy.
One of the courageous choices Yadav and Chatterjee make with Rani is using her to show how women in an oppressive patriarchy can help perpetuate it. Janaki’s marriage to Gulab awakens a cruel side of Rani, the role of mother-in-law giving her license to haze her new daughter-in-law in the same way she once was. The morning after Gulab violently consummates his marriage with Janaki, Rani shows no sympathy toward the girl, who shuffles about in obvious pain. Rani scolds her for sleeping late: “Get to work! This isn’t your mother’s house.”
Yet Rani struggles with the fact that she raised an awful misogynist for a son. With time, her acceptance of culpability in creating a monster softens her stance toward Janaki. As grim as their lives are, the film ends on a hopeful note for all four of the women. Great writing and mesmerizing performances make Parched extraordinary.