Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Riddhi Sen, Lehar Khan, Sumeet Vyas
Director: Leena Yadav
I apologise in advance for this bad pun, but I don’t want to say this any other way. Writer-director Leena Yadav’s Parched left me, well, rather parched. While in some respects it quenched my thirst, but — to further stretch the sexual hint in the film’s title — mostly it left me high and dry. Parched has a lot going for it and there’s no denying the delicious ambition of Ms Yadav. She’s roped in some of the best talent from Hollywood. Parched is shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (he shot Titanic, Ant-Man, True Lies), edited by Kevin Tent (Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways), its sound design is by Paul N.J. Ottoson (Zero Dark Thirty, Fury, Men in Black, Spiderman 2), and its music editor is Richard Ford (The Imitation Game). And if that wasn’t formidable enough, from Bollywood too she picked some of the best. Music producer is Hitesh Sonik (Maqbool, Omkara), lyrics are by Swanand Kirkire, and casting is by Mukesh Chhabra (Wasseypur, Haider, Masaan, Aligarh…)
Between Chhabra and Yadav, they’ve put together a team of exciting actors and superlative technical men and women. And the film is technically very fine. It looks great, sounds cool. It’s visually both powerful and seductive. Yet it left me irritated and disappointed because Parched’s India is too stylised. Yadav and Carpenter have set a real, harsh, very Indian story in an exotic India that panders to the West. Theirs is an India where everything is mystical, erotic, spiritual, especially Indian women and their suffering. Worse, a very Western, a very silly resolution is plonked on them. Parched, as I said, is set in a very pretty, and pretty mythical village which has a sort of an entertainment outpost. A tented, make-shift annexe where the village’s men folk go for some nightly entertainment by Bijli (Surveen Chawla). And it tells the story of two women who crave love, and another who craves control over men.
In the village live Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) and little Janaki (Lehar Khan), the child bride with luscious hair, pink lips and big eyes who’s bought for Rs 3 lakh. Rani and Lajjo are proud women who are economically fairly independent, but their fates are locked by their circumstances — one is a widow, the other a banjh. Bijli, at the outpost, is seemingly free. She sits, for a while at least, at the top of the food chain. Her body, her sex appeal, her performances on stage and bed bring in the money that keeps several men in business. Parched pulls us into intimacy with these lovely women. Their relationships with men are all transactional, and we see how they are treated as private properties. We also sit next to them in their moments of solitude, crying out their fury and frustration, wondering if there’s more to life than this.
There isn’t a redeeming moment when they are around men and the film is unflinching in showing us domestic brutality, repeatedly. Their brief moments of escape are with other women. The men, even the ones who hold promise, always fall short. The problem is that almost every real, hard scene ends on a slightly unreal note. But the film keeps taking flights of fancy to the annoying and exotic, making all that we’ve just witnessed and experienced farcical. Its climax is so Eat Pray Love — so pulpy and banal — that it made me ill. Parched feels like it’s unsettled, struggling between wanting to tell a real story, but also keen on concocting a fairytale happy-ending. So while on one hand it shows battered women continuously sewing Rajasthani mirror-work stuff, the big cathartic moment it finds for them is creating new abuses for men and screaming them out in a deserted ruin. Too silly and infantile for a movie that wants to be taken seriously.
But, I loved some bits in the film, the ones that have sex, obviously. There’s the scene where Bijli bites off more than she can chew while trying to compete with the new girl, not realising that sexual tastes and preferences have hardened, that love-making is now a pornographic performance. And then the much-talked about and leaked love-making scene between Radhika Apte and Adil Hussain. Despite the fact that this scene is choreographed like a solemn ritual in a luxurious gufa with Mr Hussain playing the mythical Indian sex machine with hair that we only see at the Maha Kumbh, yet, I was absolutely delighted to see a sex scene that’s gentle, sexy and where the woman has, from the looks of it, a memorable orgasm. High-five to Leena Yadav.
I’ve always been captivated by Radhika Apte. She’s gorgeous, expressive and oomphy. And I’ve always found Tannishtha Chatterjee overrated. And yet, here, in Parched, there was too much acting in both Radhika and Surveen’s performances, while Tannishtha is natural, comfortable in her role, in her look, and light-footed. Apte, with her big grins and coyness, was trying too hard to be cute and sexy, and Chawla, continuously speaking in sharp, loud one-liners, got tiresome after a while. Lehar Khan, who’s grown up since she received the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 2013 for Best Child Artist for her role in Jalpari, is better than both Apte and Chawla.