Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee: Siddharth) is a 32-year-old widow, still young but old before her time in her very traditional, very remote desert village in India. She went into debt to pay the dowry for her new daughter-in-law, Janaki (Lehar Khan), who is barely more than a child; but Rani’s teenaged son has learned too well the toxic masculinity of his culture, and is less than grateful for a bride he deems a “joke.” Rani finds comfort and understanding in her pals Lajjo (Radhika Apte) — whose apparent inability to get pregnant, among other perceived slights, constantly provokes her violent husband to outbursts of physical abuse — and Bijli (Surveen Chawla), an exotic dancer and prostitute both denigrated and celebrated by the local men. The title of writer-director Leena Yadav’s beautifully photographed Parched refers not only to the geographical landscape in which these women live, but to the cultural one as well, the one that keeps women ignorant and compliant, never letting them blossom into their own people, constraining them in all ways that aren’t about serving the wants and needs of men. (“Girls who read make bad wives,” Rani tells Janaki. Janaki snatches secret moments of teaching herself to read anyway.) Sometimes brutal, ultimately uplifting, this is an unexpectedly lively and often amusing journey for these four women as they attempt to break out of a patriarchal cycle that has relied on them to police themselves, even to their own detriment, in the name of “honor.” No more, they joyfully proclaim.
Parched screens at the London Indian Film Festival on July 14th, 16th, and 20th.