The 21st Century has not seen the end of global misogyny prevalent in patriarchal societies that relegate women to untenable conditions of bondage and brutality. Leading Indian director Leena Yadav with unabashed, raw vitality and sonorous visual beauty in her film Parched, exposes the devastating impact of entrenched, ancient folkways and the misery they evoke when men become intimidated by women’s need for autonomy and identity.
On one level Yadav, who co-wrote the film with Supratik Sen, encapsulates the gradual journey toward soul freedom that three women (Rani, Bijli, Lajjo), from a remote, rural, desert community in Northern India take in support of each other. On another level the film is a profound psychological excoriation of gender abuse cycles that corrupt, demean and destroy men and women. Yadav reveals how these cycles force individuals to live unregenerate lives; desperately lost, they are incapable of achieving their own self-hood and strength of will.
Yadav targets the fountains of misogyny which poison the well of loving relationships between men and women and desiccate their hope and desire to evolve. Whether they are rich or poor, whether in rural communities or in cities, in pathetic and tragic irony, the suffering are blind, deaf and dumb to misogyny’s particular worm-ridden, parasitic annihilation. Such misogyny is spawned from self-hatred and frozen will; the suffering obstinately refuse to understand and overthrow what harms their souls: bestial customs, obtuse, inhuman behaviors. In this rural desert community the misogyny is solidified by the traditions of arranged marriages where parents create an economic compact and exchange a bride price to seal a marriage only the parents want between their disaffected, alienated children.
Early on Yadav introduces Rani (nominated as Best Actress for British Independent Film Awards, the excellent Tannifhtha Chaterjee). Rani is a single mother who meets with the male head of a family of underage girls to select a bride for her son, contract the marriage and set the date to receive her son Gulab’s bride Janaki into their home. Forced into an arranged marriage and a mother by 15, Rani lives with her husband’s family and is compelled by custom to kowtow to her mother-in-law and do her bidding. Such antiquated arrangements, the norm of the village, hold little emotional viability in a world of mobile phones and digital technology that the male elders of the community have begun to accept.
The dissonance between the modern and the ancient and parents’ dictatorial strictures forcing their children to obey antiquated mores, only serves to create hostility, resentment and hatred. These negatives are unleashed daily against the vulnerable, women and children. Men feel justified because women are chattel to be abused and mistreated with impunity; the tradition warrants they are inferiors to be suppressed by their male masters. Paternalism accepts the hypocritical double standard: men may have mistresses making them appear desirable and macho; women may not have extramarital lovers which would make them whores; men have power to roam freely, stay out all night and carouse. If women leave the home, they should expect a beating when they return.
Underneath the double standards are the ever-present female stereotypes: women either give lustful pleasure as do prostitutes like exotic dancer Bijli (award winning Indian actress Surveen Chawla), who incites men with her sensual pole dancing. Or they are menial mothers (Rani, Janaki and Rani’s friend the childless Lajjo- played by Radhika Apte), stay-at-homes who perform the house drudgery; illiterate, they can do little else. The men of this desert community work as truck drivers and for entertainment get drunk, gamble, go to prostitutes and watch Bijli who entertains the men in a circus-style tent (the concept is ironic), which is the desert community’s equivalent of a gentlemen’s club. The sleazy, lecherous pimp who runs the dance show reaps a steady profit by charging for the dances which he uses to advertise the services of the prostitutes he keeps who prosper his livelihood.
Whether prostitutes or mothers, women are preyed upon and used to inculcate the myths of the female. The illusions titillate or comfort, but women pay the sacrifice in emotional misery; the illusions bring no true love, health or wholeness to the men in their relationships with their wives. The stereotypes reinforce the men’s attitudes that women are not productive, intelligent or ingenious beyond their objectified status as sexual receptacles or birth canals. Drained of life, the aging chattel are then dumped on their daughter-in-laws, if the mothers have married off their sons. Or they are left destitute when their physical beauty evaporates.
These noxious cultural systems incapacitate Rani, Lajjo and Bijli. But they seek solace and comfort from one other as they share moments of intimacy and fun in conversations stolen away after beatings or other abuse. They even adventure overnight to an outcropping of ruins (another symbolic irony beautifully filmed), taking a vehicle (symbolic of freedom and rebirth-decorated as a butterfly with wings), from the dance show just to cut loose and run from the desolation of cruelty that they face at home.
Unfortunately, their brief respite is short-lived. Afterwards, the baleful situation for each of them intensifies. As Yadav makes clear, all respites, even the men’s escape through alcohol, sex and violence, is a temporary measure and cannot fill the emptiness that repressive belief systems generate. Without love and ambition, without renewed fountains of creativity and innovation engendered by education, this community is headed for oblivion. The only salvation is escape from this land where nothing can grow, there is no greenery, and the dust of ancient civilizations’ folkways choke the life from the men and women who live there.
The film shows the death and decline of the male misogynists who are with Rani, Lajjo, Bijli and Janaki. Gulab’s desperate circumstances (he rebels, drinks, seeks prostitutes, incurs debts), create divisions which lacerate any hope of reaffirming positive relationships with his mother and wife. Lajjo’s husband savages her with his drunken, abusiveness; he allows his male relatives to sexually molest her. He blames Lajjo for his own debilities and uses physical and emotional sadism to empower himself and vanquish her identity. Lajjo’s marriage is a reflection of what Gulab’s marriage to Janaki will be if the younger couple remains together. Lajjo’s nefarious husband is symbolized in a spiritual metaphor. By the film’s conclusion, his end brings light and redeems the friends who can then manage a leap of faith toward freedom which is a validation of their love for each other and themselves.
Not all men are wife beaters in this paternalistic culture. Some bring love and hope through education and their own freedom within. Yadav characterizes two men who exemplify the best and most honorable of men: Lajjo’s gentle, sensual and kind lover, and Kishan who, as an educator with his lovely wife, distributes books to the women, encourages them to read and helps them obtain money through their crafts. But poisonous behaviors are so rutted in their souls, instead of learning from him, the young men of the community are enraged. Hopeless victims of the devouring parasites of jealousy and emptiness that engulf them, Gulab and his friends terrorize Kishan and his wife.
This is an exceptional film in its storytelling, dramatic range and themes of light and dark, truth and lies, hatred and love, humanity and inhumanity. Cinematically, it is breathtaking with its symbolic contrasts of the vivid colorful and the monotone (in the costumes, butterfly vehicle, etc.), representing life and nullity. The night scenes captivate; the desolation of the landscape is filmed as a poem. The desert scenes with the three women, are particularly joyful. The dance scenes and music are frenetic; the incorporation of the festival symbolism is pointed.
Parched as a worthy effort by the filmmakers is memorable and unique. After theatrical runs in NYC, LA and the Bay Area, award winning Indian drama Parched will be released on DVD / VOD on August 9th via Wolfe Video.