Friday, June 17, 2016

Parched: Gujarati Women and the Men Who Abuse Them

The men of this provincial Gujarati village all seem to have the own unique style for being boorish, misogynist, freeloading sexual predators. Each is as different as a snowflake, but they make the women around them just as miserable. Worst of all, the put upon women are supposed to take it and be grateful. However, four women start to question tradition in Leena Yadav’s Parched (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Rani’s rapey husband was no door prize, but when he keeled over, literally dead drunk, he left her as the sole provider for their entitled son Gulab and his wizened old mother. For the record, she was sixteen years old at the time, having survived three years of wedded bliss. Her best friend is the sweetly optimistic Lajjo, who is routinely beaten by her husband for being infertile, even though we immediately suspect he is the one shooting blanks. Basically, the only alternative to being an abused house wife is to be a prostitute, like Bijli, who befriended Rani and Lajjo through an unlikely chain of events. That is how things have always been in the village and the chauvinist elders intend to keep it that way.

Rani has always followed the rules, but she starts to doubt when she buys her gangster-wannabe son a wife. It is called a dowry, but it’s the same as purchasing chattel. When the union starts on a sour note, she immediately lashes out at the innocent Janaki, but she eventually realizes she is just continuing the cycle of abuse. Meanwhile, Gulab the red light district-patronizing defender of traditional values and his running mates decide to take out their frustrations on Kishan, the village’s sole progressive, who offers the local women empowering work as a shirt manufacturer.

It is impossible not to be profoundly moved and deeply angered by Parched, but Yadav hardly plays fair. She uses every manipulative trick in the book, while completely eschewing subtlety. At times the film feels like a frontal assault. There are only so many times you can watch a cowering woman endure a potentially crippling assault without getting sick to your psyche. However, you have to admire the in-your-face honesty, which makes the tacked-on happy ending feel so weird, sort of like if Thelma and Louise had safely driven off into the sunset in a clown car.

As Rani, Tannishtha Chatterjee basically rips the viewer’s heart out and stomps on it. Yet she looks downright aloof and detached compared Radhika Apte as the acutely na├»ve and vulnerable Lajjo. Arguably, Surveen Chawla gives the fullest performance as the sultry but self-defeating Bijli. Unfortunately, Lehar Khan spends too much time buried under veils and shunted into a corner to make much of an impression as Janaki, but Riddhi Sen is thoroughly detestable, yet still sadly believable, as the monstrous little Gulab.

Yadav is definitely pushing hot buttons and using agit-prop theater techniques, but the film mostly still works on a basic dramatic level. In this case, her heart also happens to be in the right place. She does make us care about these characters’ fates—and she makes us suffer it. Recommended for those in the mood for a blood pressure-rising social issue Parallel Cinema, Parched opens today (6/17) in New York, at the AMC Empire.