One of the enduring scenes in director Leena Yadav's much acclaimed film, Parched, is one which garnered controversy prior to its release in India. Apart from the leaked love-making scene between Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and Mystery Man (Adil Hussain), it's the part between her and Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), when the latter applies balm—both literal and figurative—on the former's wounded chest. It's enduring for a different reason that is removed from 'sex' or 'porn'. Apte has her bosom completely bare and there is nothing titillating in that scene. It is at once, evocative of physical and emotional pain, relief of human touch, comfort, friendship, tenderness.. even perhaps for a few seconds teetering onto the sexual spectrum set in the context. That somehow sums up the essence of this film that released globally last year and comes home this week.
Set in rural Rajasthan, Parched is Yadav's third feature. It is the coming-of-age of four women of a village reined in by patriarchy and claustrophobic age-old traditions.
Lajjo is a childless woman subject to regular physical abuse by her alcoholic husband, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj), as she struggles to conceive for the love of parenthood. Rani is a quiet widow who struggled to bring up a now ingrate wayward son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen) and gets him married to Janaki (Lehar Khan) from a neighbouring village. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is an erotica village dancer by evening who is pimped out at night by a colleague, Rajesh (Chandan Anand) in cohorts with their employer. She hopes for Rajesh to rescue them both from this wretched life. Both Lajjo and Rani work for a local crafts entrepreneur Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) considered an outsider by other villagers for his progressive ideas and marriage to an 'English-speaking' woman from northeast India who assists him at his work.
Each character's tale represents deep-rooted societal flaws and through the organic coming together of these women freeing themselves of these shackles, the story warmly metamorphoses into hope of a better future. Lajjo must stand up to a lifetime of battering and scarring at various levels. Abuse in marriage, including marital rape, is never okay. Rani must open up to the possibility of love and companionship once again. A woman's life doesn't have to end with the loss of a partner. Janaki to the man who loves and respects her, and he is not her husband. Bijli, who learns and teaches her friends about being unapologetic about their sexuality and desires. The mystery (read ideal?) man played by Hussain is the proverbial one who lives in a cave, bowing down to a woman's vagina before making love to her, beyond her body.
With sensitive, riveting performances by the leads and thoughtful camera work, the film has been shot in a muted palette. Watch out for the parts where the four women upturn popular Hindi expletives and discover vibrating mobile phones. This film is about individual empowerment that converges to transform four women who overcome caste, class, status, age and discover themselves and each other.
With a run time of 118 minutes, there couldn't have been a more apt title for a film that leaves one thirsty for freedom.
Director: Leena Yadav
Cast: Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Adil Hussain, Surveen Chawla, Sumeet Vyas