Coming back to Bollywood and ‘female centric’ movies, there were two ‘female centric’ movies that released on consecutive Fridays last month - Pink and Parched. However, even with their female-centric storyline, the context of both movies was poles apart. I reviewed Pink two weeks ago, which was a movie about three women in an urban set up. On the other hand, Parched is a movie about four women, in a village in rural Rajasthan, who are stuck in the cobwebs of their gendered realities; be it Rani, a 32 year-old widow who is trying to get her son married, or Lajjo who is ‘baanjh’ (sterile) or Bijli, an erotic dancer and sex worker.
Shortly into the movie, one begins to wonder why director Leena Yadav decided to set this movie up in a rural village of Rajasthan. All the social issues that are being talked about or touched upon (such as domestic violence, infertility, child marriage, marital rape) are issues that exist in any part of the country. With unnecessary mysticism and eroticism, there is no context to the place with the accent and apparel of the cast coming across as funny and unplanned. There is no single accent or dialect to their language and one can't feel associated to the characters no matter how hard they try.
While Tanishhtha Chatterjee is forgivable for her accent as she keeps her voice low mostly (just like a widow is supposed to be in a feudal and patriarchal village), Radhika Apte’s exceptional facial expressions do not match her bad accent and Surveen Chawla’s accent is too Punjabi/Haryanvi for a movie set up in a Rajasthani village. Rajasthan has been used like a prop in the movie and the director has done grave injustice to the prop. Rajeev Masand sums it up brilliantly: “the film is overindulgent with both exoticism and eroticism leading viewers to feel that they are stuck in an unwieldy loop.”
The director has brilliantly developed the four lead characters. Lajjo is a widow who has been taking care of her ailing mother-in-law for more than half of her life as well as bringing up her son. Janaki is an innocent young bride who is as empathetic as her mother-in-law Rani. Lajjo is beaten by her alcoholic husband regularly because she can not conceive; she is vulnerable as well as carefree. As Rani feels that she isn’t a complete woman, she also feels that she has nothing to lose which also explains the carefree spirit. Bijli is an erotic dancer who is constantly negotiating her own realities in whatever way she can--be it with Sharma, her dance company owner or Raju, her co dancer.
The film has tried to touch upon the topic of female sexuality and pleasure, which in itself is a taboo. But when one looks into the actual portrayal of the same, stereotypes stare back as one would see in a mainstream Bollywood movie. While the sexuality of female protagonists is expressed in several ways, their hairless naked bodies end up being eyesores. So when one see Radhika Apte’s hairless underarms which seem to have come out of a beauty commercial and not a village, one ponders at the need for showing them, and whether this is a basal attempt of copying the old masters (Deepa Mehta’s Fire anyone?).
There is a certain binary that exists as far as female sexuality is concerned; either it is a woman who is supposed to be protected in a world fraught with dangers supported by narratives with religious right agendas or it is an obsession in women’s magazines, pornography and other media platforms. Both these binaries - suppression of pleasure and commodification in others - are as paralyzing as it gets (Jolly, Cornwall & Hawkins, 2013). In this movie, all the four characters are exploring what they can, and wish, to enjoy; such pleasures are not hindered by the misogyny that surrounds them.
From the very beginning of the movie, the director is building up to a bigger act of rebellion by the characters. There is an impetus that is being created by small acts of rebellion in the movie - be it Rani talking to Shah Rukh Khan on the phone, or Rani or Lajjo being friends with a sex worker, Bijli or Janaki cutting her hair off so that she doesn’t get married.
The two raunchy songs performed by Bijli make you feel that you have suddenly switched to Bhojpuri cinema. At this point, as a viewer, the director seems utterly confused as to whether she is directing a movie for film festivals or the mainstream Indian audience who appreciate the ‘item numbers’. The character of Bijli could still be a sex-worker and an eroctic dancer without these in-your-face pelvic thrusts. Similarly, there is a scene where Rani is dressing Lajjo’s wounds after her husband hits her and they are about to kiss only to be interrupted by Rani’s daughter-in-law. At this point in the movie, it feels that you are watching Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 2016.
The film very beautifully brings out the concept of female friendships and how these bonds help all four characters to set each other free. After adhering to all societal norms for almost all her life, the first act of rebellion by Rani was stopping her son and throwing him out when he is beating his wife. She sells her house and gives that money to her daughter-in-law for her education and sets her free. By empowering Janaki, Rani empowers herself. Similarly, when Lajjo’s husband catches fire, Lajjo has two options - either to save him or to save herself and she chooses herself over what the society would have expected her to choose. In all this, Rani stands by her and all decide to break free from the power structures.
Parched, for me is a movie that has been made to play to the South Asian ‘orientalist’ image to the Western audience with ‘art film’ actors. All the issues from domestic violence to alcoholism to women negotiating in various spaces is something that could be happening in your backyard and doesn’t need the kind of unnecessary accessorization that has been done by the director.