By Purnangshu Paul:
When was the last time you saw three women from a nondescript village in Rajasthan, breaking their shackles and taking a reckless dive in a pond together in the dead of night, that too in an Indian Hindi film? When did you last see a couple of women shouting male-centric expletives (in an attempt to become equals) from atop a cliff?
You can find answers to the above questions in the recently released and currently the most talked about film in the independent cinema circuit – Parched.
In a small Rajasthani village, where the male ‘Panchs’ are still making most of the decisions, the women are taking little but significant steps towards achieving a certain amount of economic independence by engaging in handicrafts work.
Parched revolves around the lives of Rani, Lajjo, Bijli and Janaki who fight against the rotten principles of patriarchy to liberate themselves.
Rani (Tanistha Chatterjee) deals with the agony of an early marriage and the loss of her husband at a very tender age. Through the course of the film, she expresses her unfulfilled and repressed sexual desires in covert and overt ways. She goes from blindly following patriarchal impositions to questioning and eventually breaking away from them.
Lajjo, (Radhika Apte) is a talented weaver. She’s a happy soul who’s battered every other night by an inebriated husband because of her inability to conceive a child. Lajjo’s character gains more strength as she gradually takes control over her choices, her body and her life. Her character is often called ‘Baanj’ (a woman who can’t conceive), and the use of the derogatory term brings forth the stigma that’s attached to infertile women, how they hold no value to a spouse and family because they can’t conceive.
Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a dancer and sex worker who visits the village with her ‘company’ every year. She’s friends with Rani and Lajjo and acts as their window to the outside world. Even though her social status is that of an outcast because of her profession, she takes insults thrown at her with a pinch of salt and marches ahead. Bijli’s worldview is more informed because of all the travelling that she’s done. She’s the voice of reason to the other two women on multiple occasions.
Janaki (Lehar Khan) enters the narrative as the child bride to Rani’s son Gulab. Janaki liked to read and didn’t want to get married; she tries her best to stop the marriage but fails. Her relationship with Gulab is more a commentary on how ideas of toxic masculinity invade the minds of young men and affect their behaviour. Gulab doesn’t treat Janaki well. He beats her up, forces himself on her and thinks that the household can’t survive without a ‘man’.
Every character in the movie is tangled in their web of dilemmas, choices and mistakes. Anything and everything that has been made to seem ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ in the name of ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ and ‘log kya kahenge’ is questioned and challenged in this perfectly crafted film by Leena Yadav.
Yadav has not only questioned set patriarchal norms through the characters but also thrown light on the less talked about ideas of women’s sexuality and their sexual preferences.
In two strikingly beautifully shot sequences, Yadav represents repressed sexual desires of the characters through an intimate exchange between Rani and Lajjo. In the scene where Rani gently applies balm on Lajjo’s bare and injured chest, there is an unspoken agreement between the two. The two women understand each other, they momentarily give in to their feelings but move away as Janaki enters.
Violence as a trope is used in various ways to expose how patriarchy hurts just about everybody – the women, the men, anyone who so much even makes an attempt to move away from conservative ideas. The film carefully moves beyond just the visual representation of violence and throttles your heart with the inherent viciousness with which the society sanctions man-on-woman violence.
Women’s bodies in India have been treated as a site where rests a family’s pride and honour (one must forget though about how badly it’s often scarred, hit and bruised). Lajjo is cursed because she can’t conceive a child when it doesn’t even occur to anybody that maybe it could be the husband who’s impotent. Questioning a man’s virility is and has been out of bounds. Gulab thinks his initiation into manhood happens when he beats his newlywed wife.
However, the film hints at a possible solution that can help women like Rani, Lajjo and Bijli come out of the dark. Kishan (Sumeet Vyas), and his wife Naobi are the change agents in the village. They run a small handicrafts business and work with the women in the village. Economic independence and self-sufficiency are ideas and possibilities that are introduced to these women. Education acts as a power tool of empowerment is also established in the movie.
With films like Angry Indian Goddesses, Pink, Queen, Masaan and Parched, Hindi cinema is breaking stereotypes related to women. More women in films are not sidekicks or ‘arm candies’ to their male counterparts and are being shown as taking an active part in describing what their position in society is, and what it should be.