Truth be told, not too many films pass the Bechdel test. The rules of this test are simple. All that's needed is for two or more women in a scene to be engaged in conversation that is not about a man. And a painfully high number of films fail this test pathetically. Try it yourself.
Leena Yadav's Parched is a welcome departure from this trend. Produced by Ajay Devgan, the film, based in the rural landscape of Rajasthan, stands out for its realistic portrayal of women. It manages to capture real fears, real joys, real bonds, without spelling them out for the viewer.
And that seamless understanding of womanhood becomes increasingly pronounced with each woman's story in this film, no matter how different their lives are from each other. While it most undoubtedly is stellar cinema, the nuanced understanding of women's struggles here, both with themselves and those around them, would be criminal to miss.
All the three central characters in this film are women. Men appear as agents of violence, of support, of misplaced entitlement, and, undoubtedly, of patriarchy.
Birth and rebirth
There's the spirited Lajjo (Radhika Apte), who is a survivor of domestic violence for being - as the English subtitles put it - barren. Lajjo has never known a lover's touch, for her husband has conditioned her to associate sex with violence, and yet, she flirts with her friends, often aches for their comforting hands on her bruised skin.
Despite her husband's repeated attempts to annihilate her spirit, Lajjo is a survivor. She lets her ghunghat fly while enjoying the breeze coming in through a public bus window. She works hard and earns for herself. She's never short on enthusiasm for the zaniest of things. And when she finally gets pregnant with a man who respects her body, she reminds her husband that it would do him good to silently adopt her child borne outside of marriage.
Lajjo's sexual encounter with a stranger in a cave is perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the film. Never has a sex scene been this disturbing, sensual and enormously important in a Bollywood film before. She lays down flat on her back, raises her skirt and curls up her toes, fearing the inevitable.
Except, the stranger worships her body. Lajjo, overwhelmed and aroused all at once, possibly embodies a lot of women understanding non-exploitative sex for the first time. Her rural context doesn't remove her from our urban realities - for we too are constantly surprised when men treat our bodies right. Lajjo's delight after the sex that gives her the child she so wishes for is infectious. She, along with her friends, skinny dips in a lake in the wee hours of the night, naked but hidden from the roving eyes of patriarchy.
The film handles her story, despite the violence, with subtlety. Despite a direct comparison with the backdrop of burning evil during Dussehra, Parched allows Lajjo to explain her husband's accidental death with a simple, "Jal gaya".
Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is relegated to her blacks for life. The widow of an abusive and cheating husband, mother to a rapist and assailant and mother-in-law to his 15-year-old raped bride Janaki (Lehar Khan), Rani is caught between being a patriarchal agent herself and embracing emancipation.
From being convinced about her status as a sexless old hag to sitting on a vibrating phone to pleasure herself, Rani's character comes a long way in the film. Her conflict, entirely internal, oscillates between protecting her son's interests, exploiting her daughter-in-law, exploring her sexuality with women and coming to terms with her son's crimes.
Complex and seeking absolution for all the times she turned a blind eye to her son's violent behaviour, Rani graduates from being a mother-in-law to a mother to Janaki. She finds it in herself to quit being bitter about the education that was snatched away from her and ensures that Janaki gets a different, better future.
The women alone save, help, encourage, give strength and love to the other women in Parched. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the film sets a new precedent in understanding the value as well as the fun in female friendships.
These friendships transcend age, position in society and social norms.
The woman who ushers in this utter disruption of norms is Bijli (Surveen Chawla), a prostitute who found a friend in her client's wife Rani after she assisted the drunk man home. The then 15-year-olds bond over a night of games, each innocently unaware of what their position in society signifies.
That this film shows them as friends even in their adulthood is rather interesting. Bijli serves as Rani and Lajjo's escape from domestic realities, but fights her demons on her own.
She's a fierce feminist who questions why expletives are always aimed at women and their bodies. In a particularly heartwarming scene, Bijli tutors her friends to scream "Betach*d, Chachach*d, Bhaich*d" from atop the wall of a ruin.
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Their clandestine meetings get wonderfully subverted by Bijli's choice of vehicle - a stage prop scooter with blaring lights and colourful wings.
Bijli, remarkably, is also shown as the most educated. Her experience in dealing with the worst of men makes her the most skeptical of them, and so she makes an effort to educate herself about patriarchy.
It is Bijli who informs Lajjo that it isn't necessary that she's incapable of having children. "Jaake apne mard se poonch. Uski jaanch kara,"she tells her friend. (Go ask your husband if he's impotent. Get him medically examined.)
The film is quite possibly titled Parched because of the dry terrain that serves as its backdrop. But beyond the obvious, it also signifies the need for these women to embrace their individuality. They're parched for the lack of - no, not sex - but recognition.
Lajjo wishes to be recognised as an independent, carefree soul, and not a 'barren woman'. Rani wishes to be recognised as a sexual being capable of fighting the patriarchy drilled into her. Bijli wishes to be recognised as a human more than an object.
Parched does a phenomenal job of bringing these well rounded characters to their individual moments of empowerment. But it's the way this film ends that truly serves as an enormous reality check to films like last week's much celebrated release Pink.
These women don't need an Amitabh Bachchan to tell them what they need. They don't need a man to save them. Despite being largely uneducated, these women don't even need an educated patroniser - be it a woman or a man - to make them come to terms with themselves.
Lajjo, Rani and Bijli run from the terrible lives they wish to leave behind. And they run together.
As an overwhelmed Bijli says in the end, "Tum Bijli ko bhaga le aye ho. Aisa kisi ne nahi kiya."(You eloped with me. I've never had that before.)