Leena Yadav describes her upcoming film Parched as “sex in the village”. The subject springs from the candid conversations around sexuality she had with village women while researching for the film. In Parched , she looks at female sexuality thriving in a repressed world of gender inequities and patriarchy. It’s not just about serious issues. “It’s also about celebrating womanhood, the happiness and ecstasies of women,” she says. “It is beautiful; not just dark and depressing.” In retrospect, Yadav also feels that the film is about humanity rather than only about gender. “There is no woman-man, victim-culprit divide. The villains are traditions, norms and conditioning,” she says.
The setting for Parched may be rural, but Yadav claims that many an international screening of the film has got her an empathetic response. According to her, things usually begin with denial; some viewers are judgmental that things like child marriage and abuse should still be happening in India. Then pain comes pouring out with a final admittance that they too have seen such things for real. “We in the cities are considered more progressive,” says Yadav. “We think the gender problem is elsewhere but things are in a big mess right in our backyard. We just shut the door and veil it better.”
The film kick-started pretty spontaneously: at a casual meeting with actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, the two decided to come together to work on a film. The actor wanted to do something small along the lines of her films Road and Jal,which had been shot in Kutch. And so did Yadav.
Parched has earned her acclaim the world over right from the time it started its journey in September last year. It was screened in the Special Presentations section at the Toronto International Film Festival. As she gets all set to head to the London India Film Festival, Yadav informs us that it has been to 22 festivals already.
The film won the Impact award at the Stockholm Film Festival with the iconic Chinese contemporary artist Ai WeiWei presiding over the jury. “It was given to us for making a big statement about social change,” says Yadav.
Yadav’s film has been praised a lot abroad for placing popular Bollywood idiom in a realistic context. The film’s international appeal also stems from the fact some of the crew members are well-known names on the world stage — like cinematographer Russell Carpenter, with a film like Titanic behind him, and editor Kevin Tent, who has worked with a name like Alexander Payne.
It was Yadav’s husband, cinematographer Aseem Bajaj (who decided to go full-time into production for the film) who had helped Carpenter out while he was in India with Ashton Kutcher on the film Jobs. He gave the script to Carpenter, who quickly got on board. The fact that he looked at a lot of the action from a different eye helped the film, says Yadav. “He had a different perspective on the designs, textures we take for granted. It helped reach out to the world, universalised the film, the smallest change in grammar might help reach out better internationally.”
In fact, Yadav prefers to call it an eternal rather than universal project: “It’s about human politics and conditioning.”
Like her previous ventures, Yadav’s Parched too comes with big backing. This time, Ajay Devgan gave the seed money. He also gave the blanket permission to leverage his name for the cause. Private investors took care of the rest of the finance, though convincing them about the subject took a while.
The film was researched and scripted in 2012-13 and shooting started in 2014. Yadav wanted to shoot it in Kutch but the villagers resisted, saying the “women will get corrupted”, only reiterating the film’s theme of patriarchy. It was finally shot in Rajasthan. Yadav has stayed away from ascribing the story to any particular tribe, caste, place or community. Hers is a mix-and-match village. “I haven’t committed to any specific geography,” she says. The lingo is also a created one, stemming from Hindi, Kutchi and other dialects. “I often wondered if I will be able to bring out the intricacy but emotions transcend language to connect with the viewer.”
The film is still playing in France and Mexico. It has also been sold in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, and is all set for release in India. “I have gone out to come back home,” she says.
An army girl and economics graduate, Yadav is a writer, director and editor rolled into one. What does she prefer of the three? Direction, she says. She likes the magic of 100 people working on a set to create something together. “There can be nothing like it. It’s the most collaborative art form ever,” says Yadav. “The way the energy of everybody — from the actors to the spot boys — falls together... It’s like getting Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh together in one common frame,” she says.
Writing, however, is painful and emotional; psychotherapy with one’s own self. It’s a lonely practice while she likes being with people. While a few international projects are there in her kitty, Yadav begins work on her new Hindi film — a father-son story with newcomer Anirudh Talwar.
What Yadav doesn’t like is to be boxed in as a ‘woman director’. In fact there was always a rebellion in her to not make a woman-oriented film. “This preconceived labelling is a double-edged sword,” she says. “It often gets the film read differently. Would this film have been reacted to differently if a man had made it?” she asks rhetorically.
For her, a director like Pedro Almodóvar understands and explores the female psyche better than any woman director. So why the artificial divides?