Laura Anne Harris talked to Indian writer-director Leena Yadav about depicting female friendship and empowerment in a male-dominated community in her new film Parched. The film is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched is a vibrant film about the strength of female friendship in the face of adversity. Set in the rural landscapes of Gujarat, India, the women live in a rural, patriarchal society and experience constant abuse. Yet the film explores the women’s frank conversations surrounding sexuality and their search for empowerment in a male-dominated community. Parched opens June 17th in LA and across the United States. I interviewed Leena Yadav about female empowerment in her movie.
The main characters Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), and Lajjo (Radhika Apte) both experience physical and emotional abuse; Rani from her late husband and then from her newly wedded son Gulab (Riddhi Sen), and from Lajjo from her alcoholic husband. One of the strongest characters in the film is Bijli (Surveen Chawla), a prostitute who is trapped in a system of commoditization in service of men’s pleasure. Despite these women’s hard circumstances, Yadav never portrays these characters as victims. Their strength comes from their strong bond of friendship.
Depicting rural women in India
Yadav wanted to write about rural women in India, a subject not seen in many feature films today. She has strong opinions on why these kinds of films aren’t made: “It’s like in any part of the world. In commercial films, women don’t have substantial roles.In independent [films], you have some interesting protagonists played by women. But more or less, the whole projection of women in film is very low. In India and all over the world, [the film industry is] a male driven industry, so market prices of films are decided by your main star.”
“The film was born out of a conversation with my lead actress, Tannishtha [Chatterjee] who plays Rani. She was telling me about a conversation she [had] with women in the village while she was shooting another film. [Those] conversations she had about sex and sexual needs with these women were so honest. We think we are more progressive and educated in the city, but these [rural] women talk about sex unguardedly.” Yadav “travelled [to] the villages. And spoke with lots of women about their lives.” When she returned to Bombay from her last trip to a village, she realized that “the same stories happen right here in Bombay. There were so many similar strains.”
Sex positivity in cinema
Yadav set out to portray more sex positive female characters in her film. “I always felt we really need to talk about sex. We put so many [labels] on sex. It’s dirty, [you’re] a whore, or you’re not supposed to. It’s something very secretive, but it affects all our lives. Conversations about sex are very important between the genders. A lot of the anger in our lives comes from sexual regression. We always see men in film talking about sex, [but] we women do [it, too]. When we get together, we talk about a lot of things that affect our lives. And I rarely see those conversations in film.”
“For me, the violent men are victims”
Yadav felt it was really important not to blame either gender for their circumstance in the film. I was surprised to hear Yadav say, “For me, the violent men are victims. Victims of the conditioning of the men they need to be…My film is about conditioning and breaking the kind of conditioning we all have in different cultures and in different ways. And that’s what sets gender roles and defines how women are treated.”
Though he’s very unlikable, Rani’s son Gulba is also a victim of that conditioning: he was forced into the traditional role of husband at just 14. Yadav explained, “It’s about his childhood — [being] brought up in a village where he didn’t have a father figure of his own. [He] don’t even know how to be a man. So that has even affected his sexuality. It’s affected who he has become. There is so much anger inside of him, [and] if [the men in the village] were allowed to sit and cry over their circumstances, it would have been better.”
Depicting female friendship
The central relationship in the film is the close friendship between Rani and Bijli. As Yadav explained, “It started with seeing the outsider. There were [aspects] of the friendship I wanted to explore. One is everybody judging the other and feeling better about themselves. But at the same time, all the lines blur, and you just become human beings. There’s so much forgiveness there.”
In Parched, it was refreshing to see a complex depiction of a sex worker on screen.Yadav loved that Bijli and Rani’s relationship began because Bijli was Rani’s husband’s prostitute, and they met when they were 14: “they sat and laughed about life and formed a friendship.” Though she’s a sex worker, Bijli is not a victim or an enemy to Rani. Rather, they’re just friends who can laugh about life.
Vibrant colours against harsh landscapes bolstered the film’s optimism
The vibrant colours of the costumes against the harsh landscapes were gorgeous, which bolstered the film’s optimistic point of view. Yadav credited cinematographer Russell Carpenter with this vivid imagery. “He brought [the film] to life so beautifully [and] he painted the film.” The images glowed along the dry terrain, which complemented the lightness and humour of the film’s characters. Because the landscape was so harsh, Yadav saw “the human need for colour when everything is so dry and monotonous. I see how many times women cover up violence with makeup,” and many women wore very colourful clothes to hide their pain.
Using natural light during filming was a necessity because access to power was limited. “The sun through the hatch of the roof is the light in the day. The fire and the lanterns are the lights [for the night],” Yadav clarifies. Fire became an important element to add to the themes of sexuality: for example, a fire pit was the only lighting source during a sensual love scene with Lajjo and a mysterious man. But fire was also a destructive force that added to the climax of the film, obliterating an evil force in the town’s festival and killing Lajjo’s abusive husband.
Celebrating the female spirit
The climax involves Lajjo and Rani setting Lajjo’s husband on fire while a festival in town celebrates the female spirit. Yadav said, “There is a political thought behind this [climax]. I believe, at some point, we were a matriarchal society, because there was a lot of worship over babies of the female goddesses. But [now], it’s about rituals. It’s about lip service. We say, ‘Oh, we have this day we celebrate the goddess of the female baby. We celebrate femininity’, but is it really there in society? That’s why I’m contrasting that with the reality of what’s going on. My whole quest in the film was [to] question everything. Don’t just do it because you’ve always done it. You’re celebrating the feminist spirit? Bullshit, do it.”
Audience response to the film
When Yadav completed the film, her colleagues shared similar stories of struggle in their culture and communities with her. When screening the film at international festivals, Yadav shared, “Women cry and come up to me and say ‘This is my story. Something like this happened to my sister [or] to my friend. [Parched] is very universal, and [it’s] really heartbreaking to know it’s universal.” While the film hasn’t been released in India, Yadav mentioned that the response from Indian viewers around the world was very “positive, and they were proud that a film like this was from India.”
“This could have been made as a dark film, but I don’t see [the women] that way. They fight back in their own small ways [and], they manage to laugh behind fear – it’s beautiful.”