Opening today at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the Laemmle in LA, “Parched” is a militantly feminist Indian movie that has elements of “Thelma and Louise” and women’s prison genre films like the 1950 “Caged” except that the prison in this instance is a poor and isolated village on a dusty plain where men treat women like slaves. The Gospel of St. John refers to the word being made flesh. “Parched” essentially makes flesh the words of Frederick Engels in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”:
The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.
In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.
Director Leena Yadav’s characters are the lynchpins of a melodrama but they are also representative of how women are victimized in a brutally sexist society either in the village depicted in “Parched”—a woman’s prison without bars—or India’s biggest cities where gang rape is a common occurrence.
With one exception, the men in “Parched” are monsters that defy conventional film-making strictures calling for complex characters even when villains. That being said, the women are deeply flawed themselves—a result of conforming to ancient customs such as arranged marriages in which the bride is often 14 years old as was the case with Rani, the film’s main character now a 32-year old widow. She is seen in the beginning of the film on her way to a nearby village with her close friend Lajjo to pick up a 15-year old girl named Janaki who was effectively “bought” for her loutish son Gulab through a dowry secured by a loan. Once the “bounty” is returned to her household, a hut really, she is expected to serve her son sexually and herself as a domestic servant.
The cash nexus defines relations between the sexes in this film as surely as it does define broader social relations in the Marxist-informed Italian neorealist classics of the 1950s.
Lajjo is married to a man who beats and controls her in the same manner as mass murderer Omar Mateen treated his first wife. She is slapped and even punched for any and every offense, with the most damaging blows a frequent punishment for her infertility.
Rounding out the trio of flawed heroines is Bijli, who dances at a local tent show in a nearby town in the fashion of “hoochie coochie dancers” at county fairs in the 1950s. Men crowd into the tent to watch her perform a Bollywood version of a pole dance, kept more chaste than Western versions. Afterwards they can pay for sex with her, where the chastity is dispensed with entirely. At the age of 35, her value as an exotic dancer and prostitute is beginning to fade but she refuses to take crap from any man including her pimp. The message here is obviously that a modicum of independence is only possible when the cash nexus governs sex. Or to paraphrase A.J. Liebling, freedom of the vagina belongs to those who own it.
The only decent man in these parts is Kishan, the owner of a handicrafts shop that employs Rani and Lajjo in piece-work done in their homes just as was the case in the earliest days of capitalism. He is married to an educated woman named who comes to the aid of a young woman who has fled a deeply oppressive marriage that was also arranged in the same fashion as Janaki’s. She cries out in the village courtyard surrounded by elders determined to return her to her proper “owners” that her husband never makes love to her and that she is simply passed around to different men as a piece of flesh to be exploited sexually, including her father-in-law. For the villagers, Kishan and his wife are outsiders who will taint their culture through their belief in the rights of women, including the right to be educated.
Some Marxist scholars view these words found in the Communist Manifesto to be widely misunderstood:
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
For example, Hal Draper argued that a more appropriate English version of Marx and Engel’s words would be “the isolation of rural life”. Whatever the case may be, idiocy and isolation both apply to the social relations found in “Parched”. People are trapped into paternalistic and self-destructive patterns that victimize women primarily but also harm men. Rani’s son Gulab resisted the idea of an arranged marriage but was forced into it because the heavy weight of tradition acted upon his mother and made his own resistance impossible. His only satisfaction is in getting drunk and paying for sex with Bijli.
It is worth quoting the comments of director Leena Yadav in the press notes at some length:
The Inspiration behind ‘Parched’
In the winter of 2012, I went searching for stories in the parched dessert of Kutch, Gujarat. This is a remote stretch of scenic land in North—West India, home to 2 million people living in small clusters and villages, governed by ancient patriarchal “norms” decreed by the village council, that is largely made up of men. The landscape of Kutch called out to me, with it’s barren cracked earth and brightly dressed women.
The Women of ‘Parched’
In one village I met a woman called Rani. She invited us into her hut, cooked lunch for us and shared her story. She had been widowed at age fifteen. Already a mother by then, Rani has since then dedicated her life to bringing up her children. Her story was real, even funny at times. The decisive moment for me as a storyteller was when Rani held my hand and said, “I haven’t been touched in 17 years. I have buried all my own needs so I can do the right thing for my children.” Her words shocked and moved me. What is ‘right’? Is it ‘right’ to order a child of fifteen to spend the rest of her life wearing black and single—handedly raise kids born from a child—marriage that was enforced upon her? Why was the right to color and/or human touch taken away from her? Who decided these societal ‘norms’ and why did Rani accept them?
Another day, a young lady sat with us giggling and chatting, like she had not a care in the world. Her face and arms were speckled with bruises. When I got up the nerve to ask her if she’s alright, she shrugged it off. “He works hard and gets frustrated sometimes. Who else will he take out his anger on? This is my life…lets talk about something else.” She smiled brightly into my face. That smile inspired me to write the character of LAJJO
I met hardworking women who cooked, cleaned, raised children alone, did back— breaking farming work by day and earned extra money from making handicrafts— delicate embroidery designs that are stitched by hand, and eventually sold in cities at high price— by the lamplight at night. These women are brainwashed to believe that their contribution is zero and it is the men who are the real providers. “Poor thing, he works hard all day and comes back tired at night, so its alright if he enjoys with a drink,” the women would say of their drunk husbands, many of whom are seasonal truckers.
The Stories of ‘Parched’ are Universal
It started when I first sent the script of ‘Parched’ to a handful of friends living in different parts of the world. Each reader (male or female) inadvertently sent back a long impassioned email, venting their own story, or sharing a story of someone close to them, that ran parallel to the stories of these women in remote Kutch. I received deeply moving and personal stories from Delhi and Mumbai, London, New York and Turkey. This trend has continued through the making, completion and now the release of the film. Almost every person who watches ‘Parched’, identifies it to an aspect of their own life, or that of someone they know.
It is clearly to me that the experience of watching ‘Parched’ touches a raw nerve and starts a dialogue the world desperately wants to have.