The feminist drama breaks new ground in Leena Yadav’s “Parched,” pinpointing its attention to a lesser known region with a sincere urgency. Yadav presents an alien world; jarring in its exposure of the existence of such a patriarchal society, which feels absurd in its distinction from Western sensibilities. Yet, it is easy to escape that initial disbelief and to be reminded that such a blatant oppression exists in this modern age, for that universality of inequality is such a prominent one.
Primarily focusing on four main women living in a small village in India, Yadav fleshes out each character and grants us different perspectives united by shared oppression. Rani, married at thirteen and widowed only two years after, struggles to discipline her son. She eventually finds a bride for him in Janaki, a young, scholarly girl whose pursuit of knowledge makes her a less than suitable housewife. She is joined by two of her best friends: Lajjo, another housewife, lively but infertile, who finds herself subject to beatings from her drunkard husband, and Bijli, a socially ostracized dancer and prostitute (connections can be made with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, as she attempts to regain her power with sexuality, although she is not as successful). Though immensely different and wholly unique, they find themselves initially connected by their startling acceptance of the tragedy within their lives, before discovering truth and attempting liberation.
Although “Parched”ostensibly deals with women, it is not solely a feminist film. Rather, it confronts misogyny and its impact on society in general — how not only women are afflicted, but men as well, by rampant, unfaltering traditions which keep the former dominated by the latter. Imbalance is presented both visually and thematically. An opening sequence which acts as a catalyst for many of the realizations made throughout the film — in which an abused woman attempts to return to her hometown, yet finds herself denied and shooed away by an elder council comprised entirely of men — feels right out of a dystopian universe. And an early conversation between Rani and the parents of her son’s intended in which a father laments having to marry off four more daughters, both accentuate this disparity of equality in powerful methods by casually passing them off as mundane.
Further contrast can be found in the film’s use of costuming and cinematography. The latter of which is masterfully executed by Russell Carpenter (“Titanic”), who contrasts the dry, arid desert with the elegant colors of the women’s beautiful saris, and finding further contrast with the black of Rani’s (screaming her widowed status to the world). Shooting with a cramped aspect ratio which confines the film’s characters within the screen, Carpenter turns the home, generally a place of safety and freedom, into a volatile prison, characterized by the crackling fireplaces or bright neon lights which only dimly illuminate. These domiciles, shabby huts — or in the case of Bijli, a tent — are made claustrophobic; they are still shrouded in darkness, with primitive aesthetics to match primitive ideals.
A similar thread of regression can be found within the village’s resistance to modern technology. The women, who fight for cell phones in order to keep better track of their husbands find their calls mostly ignored, and see their interest in televisions — to keep them company at home while their husbands are out — rejected. It is only the open-minded, the young Kishan in particular, who employs the village’s housewives for sewing and has married an educated woman from a village over, who attempts to stand-up. The rest are unreceptive, just as chained to their misogynistic ways as their women are to society.
Still, in spite of this, Yadav is able to craft a bittersweet story with true highs to counteract the lows. The glow emanating from the fireplace is warm, and scenes in which the women find themselves together and in defiance of the system which constrains them by fighting back with happiness and their free-will is exciting and electric. The film darts between these two sides as the terror of their home conditions and the elation of their rebellions interrupt and wrestle with each other. Occasionally, this jolt in tone in which the film temporarily becomes feel-good proves inconsistent, but more often than not, it remains effective.
It is easy to feel the passion with which Yadav tells the story, and to feel intimately connected with her characters, even in the midst of heavy-handed and almost bloated commentary, which sometimes feels a bit too blatantly thrown in. Aside from this however, much of the film’s emotional impact manages to feel entirely earned. The hushed score by Hitesh Sonik during moments of true emotion never manages to eclipse the very real human stories that it accompanies, nor are the experiences of the aforementioned individuals in general ever trivialized. [B]