What unites Nil Battey Sannata, Angry Indian Goddesses and Parched isn’t just that they’re female-led films, but that they’re built around conversations between women. In Hindi cinema, female-only conversation is rarer than you’d think. Even a film as forward-looking in its gender politics as Piku was mostly built around male-female or male-male conversations. Bajirao Mastani starred two of the Bollywood’s top female stars, but only allowed them a handful of scenes together. If we relied on our films for an idea of what women sound like when they talk to each other, we wouldn’t just be misguided, we’d be clueless.
Leena Yadav’s Parched doesn’t just redress the balance, it turns it on its head. There’s barely a scene in the film in which men are talking only to men, and only a couple where men and women are conversing. Instead, we get women talking to women, as friends, relations and sometimes, something much more complex (what does a widow say to her late husband’s mistress? You’ll find out). This, for me, is the most noteworthy thing in the film, though it’ll probably be its sexual frankness that gets talked about more.
In a small, conservative village in what could either be Rajasthan or Gujarat, 32-year-old widow Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is struggling to put together the money to get her son married. Her friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is dealing with the stigma of being unable to conceive. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a stage dancer and part-time prostitute; she can’t move around the village without inviting comment. Janaki (Lehar Khan), 15 years old, is being married off against her will. With the exception of Kishan (Sumeet Vyas), all the men are unfeeling and close-minded, and, in the case of Lajjo’s and Rani’s (deceased) husbands, physically abusive.
All of this might lead you to expect a film that’s well-meaning, grim and difficult to watch. But Parched is unexpectedly exuberant, fired not only by the small and large acts of defiance of these women but also by their determination to claim their fair share of joy—in this lifetime, as Rani insists in one scene. This could be something as simple as the women of the village lobbying for a TV or as layered as Rani feeling the intimate touch of a hand, even if it’s one offered more in friendship than in lust, after a gap of 17 years. Even the jokey bawdiness of their banter is a kind of rebellion—a reclaiming of their bodies and their desires.
Parched premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago; since then, it’s been screened at festivals in various countries and released in theatres in the US and Europe. It isn’t hard to imagine this film set in a corner of rural India striking a chord with people in distant lands: it is lively, bright (cinematographer Russell Carpenter makes the most of every little bit of colour), charged and accessible. Chatterjee, Apte and Chawla are thoroughly enjoyable, and find excellent support in Chandan K. Anand as Bijli’s besotted helper and Riddhi Sen as Rani’s entitled son. There are some concessions to exotica—three item numbers, musicians singing on top of a bus—but nothing egregiously silly, except perhaps Adil Hussain as a mystic lovemaker-for-hire.
When placed alongside films like Sairat or Killa—which give the impression that the makers have lived in the spaces inhabited by the characters—Parched feels like sharply-observed tourism. It’s worth noting that the film, which is very clear-eyed about the injustices women face in rural India, wraps up its storylines with a reasonable amount of optimism. Sairat had teased the viewer with a similar fantasy, before shattering the illusion with a head-shot of an ending. Intellectually, we know that social mores and regressive tradition will crush optimism and happy endings almost every time. Yet, there’s also that part of us which wants to see likeable characters who’ve put through the ringer delivered to safety, however improbable that may be. In this, as in other matters, Parched sides with the heart, not the head.
Parched releases in theatres on Friday