Gender inequality in filmmaking is a critical issue. To help bring it to light at a local level, in September 2015, with generous help from my local theater, I programmed and hosted the three-day, 10-film Directed By Women Film Festival. The event featured screenings of films ranging from Oscar-winning history-makers (Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker) to independent foreign docs (Nisha Pahuja‘s The World Before Her), and I even got to host a Q&A with director/writer/star of She Lights Up Well, Joyce Wu. It was an amazing experience and I would show all 10 films again tomorrow if I had the chance. Well, I would show nine of the 10 tomorrow. One of them would need to be replaced with Parched, a stunning Indian drama from producer/writer/director Leena Yadav, that tells an amazing tale of four women who have more in common .
Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), now in her early 30s, was made a teenage widow not long after she was made a teenage bride. She lives in a rural Indian town with her son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), whose marriage she has arranged with the parents of his 15-year-old bride-to-be, Janaki (Lehar Khan). On their wedding day – the day they also meet for the first time – Janaki reveals that the long-flowing hair she once had … hair that was, for lack of a better word, a selling point in the marriage arrangement – had been hacked off as a result of head lice. Gulab, already reluctant to enter a forced marriage, is outraged and embarrassed by Janaki’s appearance, and rather than spend their early wedded days together, Gulab instead leaves his child bride at home and goes drinking and whoring with his buddies.
Rani’s best friend, Lajjo (Radhika Apte), is having problems of her own at home. What she masks with her bubbly personality is the heartache and humiliation she suffers because she cannot bear children. She is part of a culture that demands sons and tolerates daughters, and she can provide neither. Rounding out this quartet of troubled ladies is Bijli (Surveen Chawla). A childhood friend of Rani, Bijli is now an exotic singer/dancer and prostitute of considerable reputation. She is lusted after by men, and loathed by women, and when she and her traveling troupe come to town, the course of the lives of these four women drastically change.
Beyond the evolution of these four characters, Parched presents a scathing look at the misogyny found so prevalent in rural India. The film opens with a young woman from Rani’s village begging the elders to free her from her arranged marriage because of the abuse she suffers (examples of which are heart-wrenchingly recounted). From there, each of the four protagonists are repeated victims of verbal and physical abuse, as well as general oppression, at the hands of men – abuse and oppression that present themselves as traditions. Throughout the film, from that early scene and straight through to a staggering reveal late in the picture, Yadav reminds the viewer of how commonplace this atrocious mentality is, and how Indian women suffer as a result. As it is woven through a dramatic narrative, it never comes off as preachy, but the drama makes it no less impactful.
Yadav even goes out of her way (sometimes a little too far), to illustrate how misogyny radiates against men who don’t fall in line with the village’s cultural mores and allow women to do manly things like get an education.
Yet for as shocking as the cultural show-and-tell is, the film wouldn’t work if the four protagonists weren’t such strong characters. Not only is there a group dynamic they need to navigate through (no easy task considering two women are related by arranged marriage and one is a prostitute), they each are haunted and must wrestle with those forces.
The young bride is haunted by rejection. Imagine being 15 years old, having your youth stolen from you, and being bought and paid for, only to be patently shunned by the man who is supposed to be your husband … because of your hair.
Lajjo is haunted by failure. Yes, her near-inexhaustible cheerfulness, coupled with how she lives in a man’s world but certainly understands the value women bring, are signs of happiness, which can be interpreted as personal success. But she is still of an age where not only cultural norms matter, but so do motherly instincts. That she is unable to bear a child becomes almost too much to bear.
Rani, who has already had to bear the burden of being a widow fore half her life, also struggles with culture and motherhood. For as devout as she may be in her faith and in her heritage, and for as loving as she may be as a mother, the monster her son becomes … a monster she helped create by accepting and promoting the skewed cultural norms … has her reconsidering what is most important in life.
As for Bijli, she is haunted by her past, her present, and her future. Her past haunts her as she shunned tradition and chose a life of stripping and prostitution. She may be a success, but the irony is by choosing the field she chose, she traded in one type of misogyny for another. Her present is haunted by a younger dancer ready to claim the spotlight, and her future has nothing but older age in store for her. The other three women have more at stake, I think, but Bijli’s story was so compelling in its complexity.
In addition to terrific writing and directing from Yadav, as well as gorgeous lens work from Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, 1997), each actress brings a high level of talent and execution to their roles. The collective and collaborative work done here is truly a joy.
There is a lot … A LOT … going on in Parched, but never so much that Leena Yadav can’t handle it with skilled deftness. This is a woman filmmaker ready to be the next big thing.