In the beginning few scenes of “Parched”, we’re witness to a panchayat session, in which the women of the village petition for a television and a direct-to-home dish. The panchayat objects, pointing out that their last request for mobile phones led to a woman eloping. One of the male villagers jokes that if television comes, the women will start wearing jeans, and another joins him, smirking that they will then want to drive trucks too.
While the prospect of one of the women eloping is discussed with gravity, that women might want to drive trucks is a cause for hilarity. This scene stayed with me because it said so much not about realities in the rural countryside where the story is set, but about the film itself.
But before we get to that, here are the basics. The film centres around three women, all of whom deviate from the ideal wife and mother in various ways. Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow who “hasn’t been touched by a man in years”. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is married to a drunk who abuses her because she hasn’t given him a child. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a dancer with a company that tours the villages, and after her shows sleeps with men for money.
There’s plenty to like in the film. Director Leena Yadav and cinematographer Russell Carpenter manage to give the film a lot of colour, texture and life. In stark contrast is the humour, which is dry and unassuming, and wholly fun.
The three women around whom the story revolves are more than adequate to the task. Tannishtha stolidly holds the centre, Radhika is the spunky upstart, and Surveen throws out worldly-wise cynicism.
But coming back to that panchayat session, it reveals much of the problem with the film – that it focuses far too much on the sexual and reproductive lives of the women, at the cost of other things happening to them.
This is strange when you see that the village in the film is seeing a major shift in more social and economic terms – the development of a handicrafts co-operative in the village is giving the women a growing sense of independence. They’ve even decided to pay for the village’s television through their earnings from their weaving.
It’s not as if the film completely misses the point, since there is a lot of anger among the village’s youths towards Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) and his wife Naobi (Nancy Nisa Beso), who are helping in the growth of the co-operative. And some of the younger women do show a distinct desire for education, which the young men also find threatening.
But all of that gets telescoped through the sexual lives of the main characters. In so consistently stressing on the sexual and the reproductive, at the cost of the other aspects of their lives, the film comes dangerously close to reducing women to their sexual selves. And this is the accusation it makes against the men of the village.
Hence we see the continuum on which the three main characters exist – the widow, the barren wife and the whore (not sex worker, a terminology that does not exist in the film’s universe). It’s not a question of telling a different story. The elements present in the film are enough for giving us a more rounded tale. But the way these different arcs are emphasised closes off too many possibilities.
And so, when the film sees our three heroines riding off into the sunset, free of male encumbrances and hopeful for the future, we can’t help but wonder if they’re being too optimistic. We worry about just what is going to happen to them in the wider world where sexual revolutions have come for the classes that can afford them, but women’s empowerment still remains a difficult struggle.