Leena Yadav’s Parched (2015) marks the director’s return to the big screen after a five-year break. Her previous movie Teen Patti (2010), a big-budget thriller about the relationship between gambling and probability and starring Ben Kingsley and Amitabh Bachchan, performed badly at the box office. Yadav, who has worked in television and made her directorial debut with Shabd (2005), decided to put her efforts into something more rooted to reality. The result is Parched, which is being released on September 23. It tells the story of three women – Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla) – who are forced to live in seclusion in their village. The women decide to take charge of their lives and rebel against their plight. In an interview with Scroll.in, Yadav spoke about how the story of the three women helped her find her own voice.
How did the story of ‘Parched’ take shape?
The idea of Parched came to me when Tannishtha Chatterjee, Aseem Bajaj and me decided that we should make something really, really, small budget because between us three, we had wanted to put ourselves at stake. An actor, a cinematographer and a director. Then Tannishtha told us about the conversations she had with women in villages while shooting for Jal (2012) and Road, Movie (2010).
Those conversations were also about the sex lives of the women in the villages. They were so much more honest than what we have in the comfort zone of our urban homes. We sit and judge that all the problems lie far away in the villages. Our discussions moved from sexuality to include many other intense themes that come along with it.
The idea got layered, with every discussion making us realise that the same problems existed there and in my backyard in Mumbai. Friends chipped in, saying it is the same story everywhere, they relate to the characters sitting in New York or Istanbul. It was a purely fictional story I wrote to start with, but with research, a lot of real stories got integrated into the plot. The film reflects a lot of my own sensibilities as a person and what I truly believe in.
In ‘Shabd’, Sanjay Dutt’s character wins a Booker prize. In ‘Teen Patti’, Amitabh Bachchan’s character is a mathematician who refuses a Newton award. ‘Parched’ is about three women who haven’t even received basic schooling. Was it a conscious choice to move away from successful people towards underachievers?
When we started Parched, I really wanted to make something true to what it was. Sometimes when you work with certain set-ups, you need to market it a certain way. With Parched, I did not want to be bound by those concerns and stay true only to the journey of the story I wanted to tell.
What about the casting? Did you face any challenges in assembling your actors for the lead roles?
Tannishtha Chatterjee was part of the film from the conception. We wanted to work together. One of the first actors I approached was Radhika Apte. I think she is one of the bravest and most path-breaking actors of this generation. She was game for it when I told her about the film.
I also wanted three very different energies for the film. When Mukesh Chhabra came on board as the casting director, he introduced me to Surveen Chawla for the third role of the character Bijli. When I wrote the film, I did not have anyone in mind, but I knew that for any actor to be a part of it, they would have to understand that these are path-breaking choices and they have to be willing to take risks.
How did Ajay Devgn become a co-producer?
Ajay Devgn came on board as the producer in the beginning. My husband, Aseem Bajaj, had told him about my film and said that it is not the kind of film that would be picked up by producers. When Ajay heard the story, he said he wanted to be a part of it. He immediately signed us and gave us money to begin pre-production work.
Where was the film first shown after completion?
After the world premiere of Parched at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, we had a European premiere at the Stockholm International Film Festival, 2015. We won the Impact award that was presented to us by the artist Ai Weiwei. The award is a sculpture designed by him. He gave me the biggest compliment I have ever got for this film. He said, “Your film really made me cry. The film is not about gender but a loss of humanity”. I felt very special. All my friends ever wanted was for me to take a selfie with him at the festival. He said in turn, “Do you mind if I take a selfie with you?” That was peak honour for me.
After touring the US, we took the film to a lot of Indian film festivals such as London, Melbourne, etc.
Why has it taken so long for the movie to release in India?
What happened after our first screening was that five international territories picked up the film for release in countries like France, the US, Spain, Mexico. Distributors in India would take three months to even get back, so the delay was not by us. Most people were reluctant to back our project. It is finally releasing here and personally I wouldn’t get a closure until I show it in India.
Is it because the film does not fit the description of a mainstream movie, with its theme of women empowerment?
I never made Parched as an issue-based film. People will read it as they want to interpret. For me it’s a film I have made based on observations of the society around me. I don’t believe in labels. If it can connect emotionally, that’s what should matter in the end. People should just give it a shot; it will have an emotional connect with anybody who sees it. People in the west have seen it and connected it to their own lives.
What about the Censor Board rules on nudity and language in the film?
We have got an adult certificate, which is what we were also looking for. There is nudity in the film, but the censor board has not asked for any cuts. We have visually treated the nudity scenes differently.
You have directed a variety of shows for television before you moved to films. Is there a subject you would like to bring to the small screen?
I would love to come back to television because it is a completely different kind of medium with a huge reach. I would like to make an intense drama with great performances.
What are you working on next?
I am writing a new script. I want to shoot it early next year. I am also working on a couple of international projects and trying to develop something for the producer Susan Cartsonis, who made What Women Want (2000).