Is Radhika Apte the best weeper on screen today? With other actresses, you hunt for a handkerchief to lend, a ladies’ room to usher them into. You worry about their makeup. With Apte, the emotion goes deeper, down to her core, and then it bursts out. You hunt for something to hold on to while glancing at seismograph readings. You worry about the sets. Apte had a spectacular breakdown in Kabali. The gangster drama got away with a U certificate, but she was so naked, her scenes warranted an A. The nudity in Leena Yadav’s Parched is more literal. Apte plays Lajjo, a housewife whose condition the movie’s subtitles describe through a word that could just as easily apply to the dusty, northwestern-India landscape: barren. And her tears come from being routinely beaten by her husband Manoj (Mahesh Balraj), an alcoholic whose abusiveness may stem from knowing that the problem lies with him. Apte weeps sometimes out of (the physical) pain, sometimes out of the unfairness of it all (when she thinks she’s given Manoj news that should make him happy), sometimes out of fear. To describe these variants of tears, you feel you need the kind of vocabulary the Inuit have, with their different words for snow.
After one such round of violence, Lajjo ends up at her friend Rani’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee) house – this time, her eyes are filled with remnants of tears just shed. Wordlessly, Lajjo removes her blouse. Rani sees the wounds, reaches for balm almost reflexively, and begins to apply it. Lajjo winces, then relaxes. And then, there’s a moment. But it isn’t Fire. It’s something more than friendship, but it’s also something less than a lesbian relationship. It’s just two women wanting to be touched nicely, sensitively, affectionately. The physicality isn’t an angry fuck-you to all men. It’s just a tired high-five between two women.
Throughout Parched, you hear echoes of older films, but Yadav shapes them into new sounds. There are bits that are reminiscent of Mirch Masala, but unlike the moustache-twirling subedar there, the monster isn’t just external. It lives inside Rani too, feeding on the patriarchy that has seeped into her. It rears its head when Rani sees that her young daughter-in-law, Janaki (Lehar Khan), has shorn off her hair. (A lice infestation, Janaki’s mother explains.) Instead of sympathising with the 15-year-old, Rani weeps at the ridicule she’s going to be subjected to once everyone gets a glimpse of Janaki. A little later, Rani dissuades the girl from reading. The surface stillness of Chatterjee’s performance conceals deep veins of (perhaps inadvertent, perhaps unthinking) cruelty – she makes you see that you don’t always need men to persecute women. And what about the time Rani’s best friend, a dancer and prostitute named Bijli (Surveen Chawla), barges into the gathering to wish the bride and groom (Gulab, played by Riddhi Sen)? The crowd goes silent. Then they begin to murmur. Rani doesn’t say anything to Bijli, but her stubborn refusal to meet her friend’s eyes and welcome her to the celebration is the same as a self-righteous man clutching Bijli’s hair and casting her out.
There are shades of Bazaar in Janaki being married off to Gulab when her heart beats for a boy back home. But unlike the helpless Supriya Pathak character there, Janaki comes with a hint of rebellion. Her shorn tresses aren’t really about lice. With her new look, she was hoping she’d be packed off home. The frank sex talk between women brings to mind Mandi – had Benegal made his film today, he’d surely have had a scene that demonstrated the pleasures a cell phone on vibrate mode can bring. But Parched is kinder to its women, and its sympathy isn’t an outsider’s.
We even have a scene that harks back to our myths about childless queens submitting to sages so successful in impregnation, after just one encounter, that you suspect their sperm were equipped with homing devices. It’s a silly scene, blatantly targeted at foreign art-house audiences who keep their chiropractors rich by trying out positions from the illustrated Kamasutra. I laughed at the cave setting, which all but comes with a sign at the entrance: Step this way for Tantric sex. I laughed harder on realising who was inside. (Adil Hussain isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think acrobatic sperm-donor.) But I was strangely moved when Hussain knelt before Lajjo’s splayed-open legs and offered a prayer. The scene is, no doubt, mystical bunkum, but I’ve never seen another film that literally worships the place we all come from.
As contrast, we have Gulab. Sex, to him, is just the act. Maybe it isn’t even the act. It’s just proof that he can do it, that he’s a man. After his wedding night, he tells his mother, “Pati ka rasm nibha diya.” Translation: I’ve fulfilled a husband’s traditional duties. It’s depressing any way you look at it, whether in the implication that only the husband holds the key to a woman’s sex life (Rani hasn’t been touched by a man in the 15 years she’s been a widow; now ponder, a minute, over the lusty Beedi jalaile as the ring tone on her phone ), or in the generally accepted wisdom that this is all that’s expected of a man after marriage. Parched, unsurprisingly, makes the case that happiness is not to be found with men like Gulab. What’s surprising is that the good men – the stranger who keeps calling Rani, and doesn’t back off even when she declares she’s a 32-year-old widow; or the sympathetic Raju (Chandan Anand), who loves Bijli – are given the shaft too.
Raju tells Bijli she has beautiful eyes. She laughs. She’s not used to men who notice features above her chest. Surveen Chawla is fantastic. She uses her body marvellously, without a smidgen of self-consciousness, and the toughness she projects comes off more like a side-effect of the job rather than a congenital condition. Bijli, in other words, is not resigned to her fate. She doesn’t seem beyond hope. So will she say yes to Raju, who promises a life far away from competing with younger dancers for the privilege of pole-dancing in front of married men? That would mean a happy ending for Bijli. It would also mean she needs a man to achieve this happy ending. It was a little different in Pink. A white knight of a lawyer is one thing, a white knight of a husband quite another. The former is a supporter, the latter a saviour. Like Pink, Parched features a woman from the North East. (Meghalaya there, Manipur here.) The point is the same. Your roommates (or husband, in Parched) may not see you as “different,” but in the society beyond, it’s a very different reality.
We’ve had many films about women, but few that have so sensitively, so generously let them be women. Angry Indian Goddesses, of course – but that was an urban film, and the fiery, outspoken women were closer to the women we know. We’re used to scenes showing women gossiping in salons with cucumber slices over their eyes, but that’s not the same as seeing Rani, Bijli and Lajjo with mudpacks, bursting into giggles. We’ve seen urban women swear, but it’s different when the heroines of Parched decide it’s time cuss words incorporated male relationships: fatherfucker, for instance.
But Yadav doesn’t romanticise sisterhood. The terrain of these friendships is criss-crossed by invisible borders. Rani doesn’t like it when Bijli advises her about Gulab. (I thought I heard her mind go, “What do you know about raising a child, you fatherfucking whore!”) But these moods don’t fester, these fights don’t linger. Soon after, we get the emotional equivalent of make-up sex. We learn how Bijli and Rani met. What a weird beginning for a friendship. Your husband sleeps with someone, who brings him home because he’s too drunk. You sit up all night talking to the woman – because, really, who else is there to talk to?
I don’t know what someone rooted in this region will make of all the swirling mirror-work skirts and impromptu music sessions atop buses, but this exotica did not throw me out of the film. The music compensates. It’s not cliché. Instead of Maand and Kesariya balam wafting over the sands, we get hard-pounding rock. (I was startled when I first heard these cues, almost as startled as when I read that the cinematographer of this film was Russell Carpenter, who shot Titanic. With the budget of Parched, it would have been titled Catamaran.) I did not care for some of the overt symbolism – the veil and the breeze used as metaphors for captivity and freedom, or the equating of a demonic husband with a statue of Ravana during Dussehra. (It’s another toe-dip into our myths, but at least this time, there’s no Tantric sex.) But the film hits hard, and it hits home.
There’s a happy ending of sorts, but only when we zoom in on Rani, Bijli and Lajjo. Zoom out, and you’re still left with Champa (Sayani Gupta), who ran away from her in-laws’ and was forced to return even after revealing what her brother-in-law, her father-in-law were doing to her. You’re still left with the sad truth that the only time there was some sort of women’s movement in this village, it wasn’t to support Champa or Janaki, the way it was in Mirch Masala, but to get a dish antenna and TV sets to kill time when the men folk were away driving trucks. Yes, these women could end up watching empowering programmes. They could also end up watching Ekta Kapoor soaps.
- Kabali = see here
- Fire = see here
- Mirch Masala = see here
- Bazaar = see here
- Mandi = see here
- Pink = see here
- Angry Indian Goddesses = see here
- Kesariya balam = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.