Parched: Thirsting for more

lacks punch: The depiction of characters and situations gets way too flat. — photo: special arrangement  

From Akira and Island City to Pink and now Parched. It has been a month of watching “women’s” films — films with women characters, dealing with women’s issues — that has boiled down to some visceral reactions from the audience. So be it for this week as well.

Only, with Parched, it has been all about an intuitive backing away and questioning, rather than an overwhelming acceptance of what plays on-screen. Even as I write the review, I am trying to put a finger on why it didn’t hit the spot and engage me despite dealing with some real, significant issues and ticking all the right boxes.

Perhaps because it feels too created and staged rather than organic and rooted. Be it the curious mishmash of the Gujarat-Rajasthan setting in this “somewhere in the deserts of North-West India” world. Or the strange lingo, dialogue and the accents of the actors that seem to come and go at whim. Or their contemporary body language, demeanour and Gurjari-Rajasthali acquired costumes.

Perhaps Parched also irks because it’s clearly an outsider’s gaze. And it’s not just because there is a foreign cinematographer (Russell Carpenter) at the helm, but because of its approach to the subject itself. The “exotic rural Indian women can be so playful and sexually aware even if repressed” angle seems targeted at surprising the clueless West or the urban Indians who are living in some weird bubble of their own making.

There is far too much that the filmmaker wants to pack in, and nowhere is it more pronounced than in the figure of Champa (Sayani Gupta), who comes early on in the film and then vanishes. She has returned home from her husband’s place after being ill-treated. As she rolls off her list of woes and pleads not to be sent back, you roll your eyes rather than feel moved at her plight. A scene that is intended to be stirring turns out to be unintentionally clumsy.

The so-called strong women in mainstream Hindi cinema have traditionally been battered and bruised souls who overcome patriarchy by entirely doing away with men — literally and/or metaphorically. The device has been like a subliminal, indirect wish fulfilment and release for the smothered women viewers as well. For a change, a few weeks ago in Island City, we saw a fresh, unique, light-hearted defiance against the domineering man with the aid of a TV set. Last week, Pink tried, however problematically, to make men stakeholders in women’s rights. Parched goes back to a world neatly divided between all the bad men (there’s just a token nice social worker) and the much-abused yet tough women who will rise up to fight them. As much as they wither away with men, they flower in each other’s company.

So you have 32-year-old widow Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) with an entitled 17-year-old son, Gulab, who she marries off to Janaki (Lehar Khan). A regular phone call from some stranger is her escape from the banal life. There is her friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte), saddled with an abusive, alcoholic husband and the badge of barrenness. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a dancer and sex worker living on the periphery of this world and the society.

It’s not as though there isn’t enough meat in the story. Rani could have been a fascinating character: a victim of patriarchy yet somewhere also a perpetrator of it, till she breaks lose from it herself. But the depiction gets way too flat, not just when it comes to her, but other characters and situations as well. The most dramatic of moments fail to pack in a punch. The indictment of patriarchy feels diffused and unconvincing. Protest lies in shearing off hair, going to the city; it is all about replacing one set of women-linked expletives with those related to men; the endemic violence underlying them never quite going away.

Despite sounding prudish, let me also state another problem I had with the film’s depiction of nudity, sex and the so-called erotica. Is it a bold, brazen and beautiful symbol of liberation? Or is it a positive portrayal of women seizing ownership of their own bodies? Or is it merely a ruse to shock and titillate, the male audience at that?

In 1987, Sonbai (Smita Patil) and her band of women inhabited much the same world in Mirch Masala. A world that Parched also aims to belong to today. That film still speaks to me, while Parched left me thirsting for more. All its parts don’t quite add up to a compelling whole.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 8:57:31 PM |

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