Leena Yadav’s international drama Parched is a blistering exposé of the violent repression women endure in rural India. There is no sugercoating this daily abuse, as is evident through the eyes of four women who band together because of this tragic commonality. Ensnared by tradition and misogyny, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte), Bijli (Surveen Chawla) and Janaki (Lehar Khan) are torn between their societal duty and the unpredictable freedom that sisterhood offers. The upbeat tone of many Bollyhood productions exists in Yadav’s film, sometimes to its detriment considering the film’s dark subject matter. Yet, somehow Yadav is able to use such vibrant optimism to demonstrate that even in the face of extreme adversity, these women can still find a modicum of happiness to hold onto as fuel for a better tomorrow. What Parched lacks in realistic resolution, it makes up for with a rising tide of hope for the region, channeled exquisitely by these aforementioned actors who have no limitations when it comes to exhibiting truth.
Set in the title-appropriate dry region of Gujarat, India, the women of this vicinity face harsher lives than the land itself. Rani is preparing to purchase the dowry of her son’s soon-to-be wife, Janika, with what little savings she can muster. Upon closer inspection post-wedding, Janika is an embarrassment to the family. Allegedly due to lice, Janika has cut off almost all her hair, thereby appearing “undesirable” to her new husband, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), a petulant and outwardly aggressive young man who emotionally excoriates the women in his life as vociferously as his late father. Rani is vexed knowing she’s raised a ticking time-bomb who sadly cannot free himself from the wickedness that absolute power over others creates. This systemic evil spreads like wildfire through the community, and even the rare kind-hearted man who stands up to such cruelty gets publicly beaten to a pulp.
The dire situation is no better for Rani’s friends, Lajjo and Bilji. Lajjo is accused of infertility even though it is her horrifically violent husband who is “barren.” Lajjo’s interactions with her berserk spouse are among the most grueling domestic abuse scenes ever witnessed in cinema. Although the climax to Lajjo’s subplot reaches soap opera levels of dramatic convenience, one can’t help but rejoice in the liberation that comes with breaking free from such a monster. Bilji, meanwhile, is deemed the “village whore” – she’s the lead performer of the local entertainment Dance Company but moonlights as a prostitute following each show. The men in her life view Bilji as either an escape from their matrimony or a stock they can invest in to flourish financially. Only the close bond with Rani makes Bilji feel more than just bodily property.
When getting together to discuss their misfortunes, each of the women contribute in their own way to the group’s eventual emancipation from a life of servitude. Janika’s innocence and openness with her heart inspires Rani to perhaps treat romantic love as more than just fairy tale fantasy. Rani’s experience with men in all their domineering forms proves to be a fountain of knowledge the women can draw upon to maneuver through such tyrannical terrain. Bilji’s refreshing candor and pragmatism allow her friends the courage to confront the misery of their respective situations. Finally, Lajjo’s tenaciousness and enduring positive nature sends a wave of reassurance to the others that one’s self-worth can never diminish so long as one continually fights to prove their value.
Stretching on longer than it needs to be, Parched is nonetheless a burning source of inspiration to oppressed women everywhere. Patriarchal societies and rigid modes of living that suppress humanity are given laudable indictments here. Moreover, the film’s frankness when it comes to female sexuality deserves both commendation and worldwide exhibition, especially in third world regions where women are understandably afraid to have such intimate conversations with each other. Giving a voice to the invisibly gagged is filmmaking heroism at its most effective, so bravo to director Leena Yadav for this trailblazing endeavor.
Wolfe Video will be releasing Parched this Friday, June 17th, in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, followed by a national rollout in select cities. If you happen to miss Parched in theaters, the film will bow on home video and select VOD platforms on August 9th. Be sure to check out the trailer below!