Leena Yadav’s rustic chick flick provides a map to female desire with the tourist bits marked out in bold and bright colours. Yadav’s third film Parched presents gender issues in a fairy-tale setting, but retains enough head and heart to flip the gorgeous backdrops to reveal the violence, abuse and discrimination that characterise the lives of the three principal characters.
Yadav’s feel-good paean to female solidarity begins with the widow Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who is on the verge of one of the worst days of her life. Her son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) is the most reluctant groom in her village, her daughter-in-law Janaki (Lehar Khan) has presented herself with a boyish hair-cut at the wedding ceremony, and the debts are piling up.
Rani’s confidante Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is not doing too well either. Routinely beaten up by her alcoholic husband for being unable to produce a child, Lajjo frequently presents her bruises to Rani, who can only offer balm and empty solace.
Bijli (Surveen Chawla), the local prostitute with the sharp tongue and world-weary attitude, is the most liberated of the lot, but her precarious position is underlined in a well-judged scene in which she frantically shakes her hips to impress customers who are shifting their loyalties to a younger colleague.
Into this familiar scenario of women banding together to take on the hopeless men in their lives and the strictures that govern their conduct, Yadav drops in some well-written scenes, fist-pumping scenes of female solidarity, and digs at male privilege. Why do swear words in Hindi invariably invoke women, wonders Bijli, who goes on to reel out alternatives that replace references to mothers and daughters with fathers and sons.
Only two men are worth cheering in this woman-friendly world. One is Rani’s secret admirer, who woos her over the cellphone and calls himself Shah Rukh Khan. The other is Adil Hussain’s unnamed sage, who gives Lajjo the woman-on-top experience of her lifetime in a cave, but not before saluting her womb.
The nudity is blurred in this cave-humping money shot scene (followed by skinny dipping in the sand!)¸but the more touching moment of intimacy is between Rani and Lajjo. It is not what you might expect. (The 118-minute movie is A-rated.)
Yadav’s screenplay, with dialogue by Supratik Sen, is a glamorous update on the Indian New Wave female empowerment dramas of the 1980s and early ’90s. The director revisits feminist concerns that were previously explored in less insistently glamourous settings, and even though she is clearly invested in the idea of a happy ending that might actually not be possible, violence does swirl in the air along with the mirrorwork skirts. Rani’s inability to comprehend that she is visiting her own exploitation on her daughter-in-law points to the internalisation of misogyny by women. Bijli’s brassiness does not protect her from gruesome treatment by her pimp or clients.
The movie has been shot by an American cinematographer, Russell Carpenter, and it shows in the exotica-heavy colour palette that ranges from earthy shades to richly saturated tones. Bijli’s brothel is particularly striking – a gleaming bauble in the middle of the sand. Even the movie’s literal deus ex machina is a glow-in-the-dark kitschy vehicle of fantasy.
The widow-wife-whore matrix is well performed by the actresses, whose mutual chemistry and feeling for their universal woes lift scenes that might have otherwise been trite and unconvincing. Chatterjee and Chawla, in particular, turn in solid performances, conveying the sadness that marks their handicraft-littered lives. There is glossiness to spare, but the bruises manage to peek through too.