The film could have become exploitative or cliched but smart writing and direction ensures that it doesn’t.The three principal characters in Leena Yadav’s Parched, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Gulab (Radhika Apte) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla), are women in their early 30s, but in their hearts and minds they are teenagers. It’s not difficult to understand why. Rani and Gulab got married – to men much older than them – at an age when they should have been going to school, fooling around with friends, flouting rules. Bijli, on the other hand, didn’t marry young, but, at the same age, became a prostitute – a circumstance, just like marriage, where her life was controlled by abusive, alcoholic men. As a result, none of these women experienced a fully-formed life. Their childhood was cut short by marriage; their adulthood, the twenties, saw them enduring abuses, both verbal and physical; and even now, in their early thirties, nearly nothing has changed. Rani’s become a mother-in-law, hoping marriage will set her son straight; Gulab is hoping to be a mother; Bijli, still stuck in the flesh trade, is looking for newer ways to cope and survive.
The stories of abusive men, oppressed women and an institution (a village controlled by regressive traditions) systemically supporting barbarity – even though still relevant and significant – aren’t new to India or Indian movies. But Yadav and her heroines keep adding new meanings to this drama, making it riveting and intriguing, complementing its social consciousness through good cinema. Take, for example, the character of Gulab (played by Apte, easily one of the best actresses in the country) in an early scene where she, sitting with a bunch of women, is talking about how infertile women, like her, play an important role in society populated by lascivious men who only know how to procreate. It’s a fantastic little scene; Gulab is nonchalant on the surface, smiling and eating as she talks, while the women look at her silently, perhaps wondering how her sense of shame, which for the time being has been masked by humour, can be assuaged.
This is what good acting and smart writing can help achieve; here, unlike last week’s release Pink, a message isn’t being hammered in. Parched, like most assured films, doesn’t talk directly to the audience; it does so through its characters, struggling to find out who they are, their moments, their quirks, their silences and put-on laughter, their quiet desperation, their throbbing despair. This smart writing and direction, at its finest, also manages to ask us this: How do you break the cycle of oppression when you’ve never been free, when you don’t even know you’re being oppressed in the first place?
These are less obvious and more difficult, questions, but Yadav asks them easily, while managing to tell a compelling story. The film, for instance, opens with a bunch of elderly men in the village – resembling a panchayat – deciding whether women should be allowed access to TV. Maybe it’s early, the head of the group wonders, for women were allowed cellphones of their own only a few weeks ago. This scene, at its core, is chilling, implying women don’t even have basic rights in this village, but it doesn’t play out as such. Here, the men and women are talking genially, even bantering – it’s just another day in the village where exploitation has been normalised, made to resemble something valuable.
Parched also implicitly talks about how oppression ripples across generations. After Rani becomes a mother-in-law, she feels compelled to be abusive towards Janki (Lehar Khan), the new bride in the house, forgetting how she was herself treated in the same circumstances, in the same place, nearly two decades ago. When oppression isn’t made sense or broken out of, it merely remains in its place, lying dormant, waiting to acquire new forms, transforming people into lesser versions of themselves who slowly begin to mirror their tormentors. Yadav shows that oppression isn’t just linked to gender or social milieu, that a culture of abuse is sustained by something larger – which is much difficult to pin down and, hence, much more difficult to rectify.
A film like Parched, though, centred on a long-standing grim social reality, could have easily become one-note and, even, exploitative. But Yadav knows very well that life isn’t merely a series of disappointments, that it’s always punctuated by small moments of liberation, abandon and hope. No one is presented to us as a victim or a saviour, or even a mouthpiece, in this movie; Parched simply consists of a bunch of people trying to find their own little solace, trying to find out what happiness means to them. And how it often comes unannounced: while sharing a drag of cigarette with friends, talking to a secret admirer over phone, fleeing the village on a tractor.
Parched isn’t flawless by any means–the symbolism in the film’s last ten minutes feel heavy-handed; some of the character choices, especially towards the film’s end, seem unconvincing–but it does get a lot of vital things right. And it also doesn’t take the easy route to get there. More importantly, unlike many similar films, it respects your intelligence and rewards your patience.