The obvious memory Leena Yadav’s Parched invokes – and therefore draws comparisons with – is Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala. To begin with, their setting is the same – the dry, parched land of Kutch. It is at once sobering and stark. Mirch Masala was set in the 1940s and dealt with patriarchy in the time of colonization. In fact, colonization and patriarchy went hand in hand in Mehta’s seminal film. Parched is set in present day. Or at least modern times. Women get together and ask the village head for television. In Mirch Masala, the men were astounded and terrified at the sight of a gramophone. In Parched, women own mobile phones and find innovative ways to use the phone’s vibrate settings. We’ve come a long way. We have a long way to go. It’s like time stood still and yet everything and nothing changed. Parched is a microcosm censused that throws up dark results even if what we get is a funny, light film for the most part focusing on its women, their bonding and friendship.
Last week we had Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink that also told the story of three women. Parched has been doing the festival run for a year and it is about Rani (Tannishta Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and Bijli (Surveen Chawla). While Pink had three women from the city coming together in the face of repression, Parched deals with the same women in a setting far far away from any city. Rani is trying to find a bride for her teen-aged son who is brought up in an atmosphere entrenched with the suppression of women. Lajjo is in an abusive marriage and desperately wants to conceive. Bijli is part of a traveling troupe of dancers who also entertains men from the village. To counter this, the women group leader suggests bringing television to entertain both men and the women, which reminded me of an ill-informed comment made by an Indian minister few years ago about introducing televisions in villages as means to population control.
Parched does suffer from the problem many so called festival Indian films made for a foreign audience do. There is an exotica factor attached to it and Yadav doesn’t successfully escape it. Even if required by the trajectory, Adil Hussain’s role in the third act of the film is a bit of a downer. But it is not difficult to mirror Mirch Masala on to Parched. While Bijli comes across like the character of Ratna Pathak Shah in the latter, one who has made her peace with the system to attain sexual independence, Rani is more like the Mukhi’s wife that was played by Deepti Naval. Someone who believes she is too old for all this but just a bit reluctant to knock. She is her own self only when with Lajjo or Bijli but conforms when among the folks of her village. Even the Masterji of Mirch Masala finds a reflection in Parched in the form of Kishan (Sumeet Vyas). While back then education was paramount, now it is entrepreneurship and skilled labor that Kishan utilizes for his business. It is the second film in as many weeks that sheds light on racism against the North-East Indians. Kishan is married to a woman from Manipur (the state the prosecution lawyer of Pink mistakes for Meghalaya!) and his family is shamed because he is married to a videshi and drives around with her on a bike. Lajjo is the more outspoken of the two women in the village (Bijli is always treated as an outsider), even if more foolhardy than bold but someone who is always on the verge of breaking out. She is Parched’s Sonbai, a role made famous by a powerful and florid Smita Patil.
And that is a curious case because not since Smita Patil have we had the good fortune of watching an actress in full bloom, embodying roles effortlessly the way Radhika Apte does now in Hindi cinema. Katrina Kaif may have got an award named after Patil and there was once some rubbish talk of Chitrangadha Singh reminding people the most of Patil in her prime. There is another parallel with last week’s Pink – most of us discovered a raw Apte in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Antaheen back in 2009 where, as Brinda, she captured and broke a handful of hearts. Radhika Apte of the last 5 years is a pro. It’s not about what she can do when the good problem in front of us is having difficulty thinking what it is that she cannot. She’s acted in films of all kinds – from some trash to the surest of works and it is a cliche to say she rises above it all. It is more like she compliments whatever she is in by her sheer talent and presence. She can scale high and at the same time dumb it down. Fine tuning of this sort is rare. Watch her in an early scene where the women are joking around about someone’s ability to birth girl children like a machine and Lajjo, no holds barred, retorts – retaining the scene’s lighter tone – that it is good God doesn’t listen to all of us and keeps some of us (like herself, she believes) infertile or else there will be a nation full of women. It’s about the way she says it and realizes she can now cut the atmosphere with a knife and matter-of-factly stuffs her face with food right after. This finds an echo in a later scene when Bijli tells Lajjo that men can be infertile too and Apte gives a reaction that is part shock, part relief and goes on to describe her outlook – that no matter how much ever abuse she gets in the form of her husband, she won’t take abuse from destiny, if there is a child for her in it.
That kind of assuming the mantle is what Parched is about. It’s about the three (four counting Rani’s daughter-in-law played by Lehar Khan) women finding solace in each other and in each other only. For its time, symbolically, Mirch Masala may have been about a suffragette revolution while Parched is about its women becoming conquistadors of their destiny.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)