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Leena Yadav. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Leena Yadav. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Leena Yadav: Queen of the desert

Leena Yadav on her drama 'Parched', which centres on a group of women in rural western India

Leena Yadav’s Parched, about the lives and desires of four women in the rural west, premiered almost exactly a year ago, at the Toronto International Film Festival. After releasing in theatres in the US and some European countries (it had the evocative title La Saison Des Femmes—“the season of women"—in France) earlier this year, it released in India on Friday. This is Yadav’s third film; the earlier ones, Shabd and Teen Patti, were made with big Bollywood stars.

Parched, with its rural setting and cast of character actors, appears to be a notable change of direction for Yadav. She spoke to us about the film’s journey, the importance of sexual frankness and her collaborations with Hollywood veterans such as editor Kevin Tent and cinematographer Russell Carpenter. Edited excerpts:

On-screen conversations between female characters are still a lot rarer in Hindi cinema than they should be. Is that something you wanted to upend with ‘Parched’?

When I started developing the film, I thought, there are so many events that happen in my life and I never see a representation of any of them on film. Somewhere, maybe subconsciously, this was what I wanted to do—just have these moments of irreverent fun, where women talk about sex, men, life.

From the trailer, there appears to be a directness to the way your characters discuss love and sex…

The thing is, I truly believe that we need to talk about sex. We are the country that created Kama Sutra, and where have we gone since? Simply having conversations about sex will get rid of some of the repression and fear that resides in us, which is where the violence comes from.

Leena Yadav; and Tannishtha Chatterjee (left) and Radhika Apte in a still from ‘Parched’ .
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Leena Yadav; and Tannishtha Chatterjee (left) and Radhika Apte in a still from ‘Parched’ .

Is the posting of a love scene from the film on the Internet symptomatic of this fear and repression?

Absolutely. I hated that. It’s a very beautiful scene and I don’t mind people seeing it but that’s not my film. It’s conditioning on so many levels. Just the use of the word “leak"—it sounds dirty. They called it “Radhika Apte’s porn scene". Why not “Adil Hussain’s porn scene"—he’s as nude as she is.

You’ve said that the film had its origin in a conversation you and Tannishtha Chatterjee (who plays Rani in ‘Parched’) had in 2012.

Yes, we were exploring whether we could do something together at the time. She was shooting Road, Movie and Jal in villages in Rajasthan, and was telling me about these conversations—especially concerning sex—that she was having with women there. We (in the cities) think we’re progressive, but we’re actually more guarded. These women speak of sex as a basic need and are so much more honest.

Once I started developing the idea, a lot of intense themes came in—it became more than “sex in the village". Since I never lived a rural life, I began to travel, meet women and have conversations. I initially travelled around Gujarat, but the villages there didn’t allow me to shoot. Whenever I went for a recce, I would be told, “If women like you come here, our women will become corrupted." Interestingly, it would be the younger, educated men in the village who would tell us this. This fed back into the character of Rani’s son.

Then, when I came back to Bombay, I continued having conversations here, expanding on the themes, sending the script to people across the world and getting stories from them in return. That’s when I realized that this micro-level film set in a remote corner of India had some kind of resonance.

Is the film set in Rajasthan?

We shot it in Rajasthan, but it’s set in a fictional village. I haven’t committed to a particular region, religion, caste. The clothes are a mix of many tribes in Kutch and a little bit of Rajasthan also. We created a dialect with Hindi and a little Kutchi in it. Bijli (played by Surveen Chawla) speaks with a tinge of Punjabi; Rajesh (played by Chandan Anand) speaks Haryanvi. I didn’t commit to any particular region because I didn’t want people to say, “Arre, humaare yahan aisa nahi hota hai (This doesn’t happen where we come from)."

I read that Russell Carpenter (‘Titanic’; ‘Jobs’) arrived just a few days before shooting began. Was this intentional?

We got him to the village a week before the shoot. I didn’t want him to get familiar, though I think he would have shot it beautifully anyway. A lot of the action was within huts. When we would stand there with the camera and the actors, the whole space would fill up. But Russell told me, “I’m going to make this hut look different every scene." He played with different elements like the hay, created different reasons for the light entering. I keep saying that he painted, rather than lit, the film.

As an editor yourself, does working with other editors come easy to you? What was it like collaborating with Kevin Tent (‘Girl, Interrupted’; ‘Nebraska’)?

Because I’m an editor, I shoot very differently. I do very minimal coverage because I know what I want. Russell, who has worked on such big studio films, would be really upset that I was doing so little coverage. He would say, you’ll need that shot.

You need an outside perspective at the edit level, which I learnt when I directed and edited Shabd. Kevin is picky about his projects. He wanted to see the film, so I sent him an rough cut. He saw that and wrote me a beautiful email. Working with him was amazing; he’s a very sensitive artist. I learnt a lot about writing from him.

Parched released in theatres on Friday

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