By Aditi Prakash & Sthavi Asthana
Parched is a story of four women: Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow getting her 17 year old son, Gulab married to a young girl, Janaki (Leher Khan), who does not want to marry him. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is a woman who is unable to conceive, and stuck in an abusive marriage. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a prostitute who is pimped out by the owner of the local ‘Dance Club’. The story is one of sisterhood, and shows the journey of these three women as they experience life in rural India. It shows how they turn to each other for support, while men in their lives continue to disappoint. It is also shows a slow realisation amongst the women, of their own capabilities and their belief in themselves as agents of change.
Dowry as Bride Price
In an interesting deviation from popularly-seen tradition, the movie depicted a region in India where dowry is paid by the boy’s family. And yet, this too is a custom rooted in patriarchy. While dowry is usually considered a sum paid by the girl’s family for the burden of accepting the girl into their family, here, the boy’s family seemed to see it as buying the woman for a certain price. In a scene where Rani and Lajjo went to see Janaki as a prospective bride, her family highlighted her beauty and accomplishments and then went on to negotiate the dowry amount. The entire scenario was reminiscent of a shopkeeper marketing his wares and haggling over the price with prospective buyers. There are several comments by both Rani and her son Gulab about how the bride should be worth the money they paid for her, bringing in the idea of the woman being bought as a slave – to do the household work, take care of her mother- in- law, provide sexual satisfaction for her husband, and of course provide him with a son. This was again highlighted by Rani’s anger when Janaki revealed her short hair; she felt cheated out of her money.
The cycle of abuse
The movie showcases how it is often very difficult to break out of the moulds women are cast into through the web of patriarchy. Janaki’s life is a repetition of the abuse that Rani suffered but Rani seems helpless or even unwilling to change this. She is initially quite harsh to the 15-year old girl, constantly scolding her for small errors in household work- teri maa ne kuch nahi sikhake bheja kya? (Did your mother not teach you anything before sending you here?) and even accusing her of theft. It is as though she has come to believe that this is the only way of behaving with one’s daughter-in-law.
The movie shows her being disturbed when Gulab rapes Janaki on their wedding night. She gets up and leaves the house, unable to bear the sound of the girl’s screams, but does not stop him. However, even here she blames herself for not choosing a good enough girl for him, and puts it all down to frustration on his behalf. It is interesting to see the lengths to which a man is not held accountable for his actions.
Later however, the film shows the development of a bond between the two women. Rani stops Gulab from beating up Janaki one night and helps her to get together with her secret lover.
Technology – the corrupter
Technology is considered a corrupting influence in the hands of women. At the village panchayat when the women of the village make a demand for televisions in the village, it is immediately dismissed by the sarpanch as being a bad influence on women (as evidenced by a nearby village where women have started wearing jeans). A phone in Rani’s hands is looked at with disbelief and she excuses herself as having the phone on the grounds that it is her son who bought it for her.
Women: as sexual creatures
The movie must be lauded for its frank portrayal of sexual desires of women. Women as sexual beings in their own right are often not depicted in movies. They are supposed to be the object of desires of men. Many movies show men pursuing women for sex and initiating sex, but don’t seem to realise that women might also have sexual needs.
There was an intriguing scene showing possible sexual attraction between Lajjo and Rani, where Lajjo enters Rani’s house, having been beaten up again by her husband. She takes off her blouse so that Rani could apply medicine on her wounds, and it appears that the two share an intimate moment as Lajjo pulls off Rani’s blouse as well and the two embrace each other. They were interrupted by Janaki suddenly entering the room.
An amusing scene shows Lajjo when she realises that phones can be used for more than just communication (read: as vibrators). Rani’s dialogues often show her desire for sex and her worry about not being sexually attractive. Later in the film, Lajjo has sex with another man, in a desperate attempt to get pregnant. The scene is beautifully tender and shows a direct contrast to her experiences of sex in her marriage.
Testing the Movie
The movie passes both the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests. Since the movie deals with various abuses by men, it is inevitable that men are going to be the main topic of discussion; however the focus in this regard is on their own desires and needs. It is seen that the movie has strong female characters who at the end are able to achieve their emancipation on their own.
The reality shown by this film is played out in thousands of homes across the world but masked, as on-goings inside the family often are. The movie highlights women’s desire for sexual autonomy and them being their own saviours from their horrible circumstances. The conclusion of the film shows the three women driving away on a bike, with renewed confidence that together, they will look after themselves without needing any man for support. This is a refreshing change from most Bollywood movies which follow the man being a knight-in-shining-armour trope.