The London Indian Film Festival opened this week with a screening of Leena Yadav’s ‘Parched’.
Set in rural Rajasthan the film is an eye opener about gender oppression and patriarchal values which still prevail and determine social and familial behavior.
Even while there is a global projection of India shining and rapid socio-technological progress in the country, Yadav deftly reveals the underbelly of gender conditioning and the bleak life of women in the villages of north India.
Notions of masculinity and male superiority are coded in gender roles and women continue to bear the brunt of such mind sets.
Based on real stories of real women, the project started with discussions and narrative exchanges between Yadav and her leading actor Tannishtha Chatterjee.
Convinced that these stories would constitute her next feature Yadav was aware that funding would be a challenge.
Then along with a lead producer from Jaipur (Gulab Singh Tanwar) she got Bollywood star Ajay Devgn involved and he came on board as co-producer.
Her husband Aseem Bajaj, a well known cinematographer also turned producer for the film. Parched has thus been transformational for the writer-director and the committed talent she got on board.
It is the content which convinced even big Hollywood names to come on board the project and it benefits hugely by the eye of the cinematographer Russell Carpenter (of ‘Titanic’ fame) and editor Kevin Tent who shaped the heaving narrative.
Three intertwined narratives of marginalized women unfold set against the arid lands of Gujrat. Rani, a young widow travels to another village to find a young bride for her son Gulab. She is accompanied by her friend Lajjo who is regularly beaten by her husband for being barren.
Both are skilled craftswomen who work for the local NGO Krishna- a supportive man who has brought his educated wife from Manipur to supplement his work in the village. The villagers are asking for a television and the chief is nervous about the corrupting influence it could have on the girls.
Meanwhile community entertainment is provided by the fair dancer Bijli (Surveen Chawla) who also solicits village men at night. A raucous song and dance sequence (spilling with innuendo) points to why the women are unhappy when their men go to the fair.
Rani prepares for the wedding and talks to her bedridden mother in law. Married at fifteen and widowed early Rani raised her son Gulab, an insufferable boy who drinks with village ruffians and frequents brothels.
He tells his mother who has mortgaged the house to pay dowry “ ask for a refund if the girl is not satisfactory.” It turns out that Rani’s husband was also a client of Bijli and the latter struck up a strange empathic relation with his widow.
Late at night Bijli rides her owners neon-lit scooter and takes the other girls for a drive. They talk of sex and suggest to Lajjo that her husband could be sterile, not her. In an orchestrated and fantastically subversive act, she has sex with a strange man who lives in the wilderness and is soon pregnant.
While their narratives are bleak the girls try and find hope and humour. There is a strange caller on Rani’s mobile who wishes to meet her. From using mobiles as vibrators and confiding sexual experiences these three outsiders create a believable sisterhood. For a little time there is release from the mental and physical oppression they are subject to. This could be a counter to Sex in the City and be named sex in the village.
There are moments of shock, when a village girl is forced to go back to her in-laws home even after she has disclosed that her father in law and brother in law rape her. As she leaves the village her silent look of desperation tells what her end will be.
Bijli is confronted with a younger dancer that her manager brings in and is gang raped by a group of drunk clients. But helmer Yadav stirs us away from notions of victimhood to the resilience of the three girls.
Walking the tightrope between intimacy and voyeurism, she creates a credible and empathetic space in which Rani nurses the abused and bleeding Lajjo. The homo erotic sequence offers a deeply touching moment of contact, beyond words and tears. The women are parched for a single touch of affection, “ no man has touched me for 12 years” Rani tells the mysterious suitor on the phone.
Fortified with technical expertise, Parched reverberates with the lead performances. Tannishtha Chatterjee plays the 32 year old Rani, who has struggled for years on her own, crying alone in her bed, her eyes trouble her, her back hurts with work. Her hard earned money goes to repay her son’s debts and she may lose her home. Chatterjee is totally in character torn between her duties, her love for her son and her sense of fairness towards the new bride.
When she send off her daughter in law with the village boy she loves, Rani has started breaking social inhibitions.
Radhika Apte grows better with every film I see her in. Playing the barren girl, abused by her husband every night Apte’s Lajjo still retains her humour and wants a girl child. When her husband sets fire to the house, its time for her to move on. She impresses with her silence, emotive eyes and takes a bold step about the nudity.
Chawla’s Bijli , stormy, rebellious, warm, funny is compelling on screen. A complex character losing her youth yet firm on self pride, driving the lit scooter in the darkness like a surreal phantom of revolt. The moonlit night of sexual abandon and the bath in the river evokes myths and tales. The last scene is an overhead shot of the three women at a crossroad on the neon lit scooter. Rani speaks to the mysterious phone caller, “ Should I go lef-t, should I go right? I’ll go where my heart takes me.”
Handling several complex and layered issues in the film, Yadav does not make an issue-based film but an organic, emotional drama driven by much passion and sensitivity. The only route for these marginalized women is to flee to a distant utopia. At least till things change and misogyny shifts.
The only give in is the melodramatic cut between the burning Ravana at the fair and the diabolic Manoj going up in flames in his hut. It brought back another pivotal feminist film Deepa Mehta’s Fire, in which the protagonist exits her home over a trial by fire.
Yadav’s firm handling of the narrative turns it from a horror story to a moonlit fantasy. Having travelled to twenty festivals across the world, Yadav feels even more empowered by the emotional connect with her audiences and the fact that even in countries like Sweden, women shared stories of abuse and oppression.
The challenge comes now, with a release in India where having Ajay Devgn as producer will boost marketing. Yadav’s willingness to blur images of nudity may placate the mercurial Censor Board of India. But she is determined to take the film to the villagers whose real stories have been shared in her film.
‘Parched’ is screened at the BFI Southbank on Wednesday 20th July. www.londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk