“Parched” is a fictional story, but each and every frame of its 116 odd minute runtime shouts realism. Helmed by Leena Yadav, “Parched” is an exploration of injustice against women in regressive societies, especially rural areas. This is especially rampant in backward areas of Rajasthan, where the story is supposedly set. We start with a Wes Anderson-esque wide, colourful shot, but let that not fool you. Rani and Lajjo are on their way to see a suitable bride for Rani’s son, Gulab. The transactional nature of this marriage is aptly portrayed in the next few minutes when there is talk of the dowry amount being raised, a discussion about the girl child being a “burden” on the families. Gulab is mixing with the wrong sorts, and is eager to get married, expecting a voluptuous bride for himself, all his expectations modeled after the porn he frequently watches with his friends. Establishing this premise, the film quickly introduces us to its third central character, Bijli, who is a dancer who performs in front of horny men and makes a living for herself.
“Parched” is an evocative film and its strength lies in its central performances, and razor sharp dialogue. The film effortlessly moves through its narrative, showing us the lives of Rani, Lajjo and Bijli, three woman who are held back by their fear of society. The three characters are not mere cardboard cutouts, but wonderfully complex as they have their own struggles and want different things with their lives. Rani is coming to terms with widowhood, seeks liberation, maybe even a romantic escapade (as hinted by the frequent phone-calls she receives from a possible suitor) but at the same time mistreats her daughter-in-law, maybe because of the deep rooted regressive values she has seen all around and has grown up with. Lajjo is abused by her husband daily because she can’t conceive and is labelled as a “baanjh”, a derogatory term for a woman. Bijli, easily the most electrifying of the three protagonists (no pun intended), and in perhaps the strongest performance of the film (hats off to Surveen Chawla) initially comes off as a free spirit, but she too is shackled by the men in her life who want nothing more than to use her body.
The three woman also want to explore their sexuality, through their own respective choices, which is perhaps the point of the movie. It all comes down to whether you are able to choose for yourself or not, the idea of true freedom.
Coming to the exploration of gender roles, and toxic masculinity in general, the film nails that as well. Lajjo’s husband is the one who is infertile, and can’t come to terms with it because of his fragile ego and blames Lajjo for it. Gulab, Rani’s son, is the embodiment of the uneducated youth, the kind of youngsters who grow up to be criminals and rapists. Rajesh, Bijli’s supposed “friend”, initially comes across as a starry eyed lover, but soon descends into another misogynist, wanting to be just a “pimp” for Bijli. Yes, there are such monsters who exist in our society, men who mistreat women every second of their breathing lives, and “Parched” doesn’t shy away from showing just that.
Exploring so many concepts in a single film is a monumental task, but Leena Yadav achieves this with dexterity. The film is colorful, and is flawlessly edited, some shots invoking genuine awe. The film’s strength is its performances. Radhika Apte shines as Lajjo, and gives a truly moving performance. Tannishtha Chatterjee gives a balanced, nuanced performance which is also deeply emotional, as hers is the struggle many woman would identify with. Surveen Chawla is a true revelation in which is perhaps the best performance of her career.
If there is one weakness here, it is the time devoted to the exploration and treatment of the ‘other’. Anybody from far eastern parts of India is automatically termed as an outsider, is often treated less than human, not identified as ‘Indian’ enough. The film touches upon this as well, but not quite enough, which is understandable. It is a heavy, loaded area to explore and warrants a different film. (A film which I would want to see, if made.) The fact that it exists in this film is laudable though.