CW: Rape, sexual assault, physical abuse
Parched is beautiful and brutal. It follows the cycles of time: the time of year (the plot points converge on the Dussehra festival), the time of live (marriage, motherhood, widowhood), and the cycles that keep people trapped in poverty, violence, and tradition.
The performances are raw, the characters relatable and sympathetic, and their stories important to hear. But I will warn you, the movie has a happy ending, but it doesn’t start until about five minutes before the movie ends.
Parched centers on four women living in a rural village in Rajasthan. So rural that all of the women in the village are saving up their money so they can collectively buy a satellite dish and finally get television.
Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Lajjo (Radhika Apte) , and Bijli (Surveen Chawla) are in their early 30s and even though they are close friends, they are different stages of life: Rani is a widow marrying off her 17-year-old son, Lajjo desperately wants to be a mother but is barren, and Bijli is an exotic dancer/sex worker who would like to settle down. The fourth woman is Janaki (Lehar Khan), Rani’s new 15-year-old daughter-in-law. They want a different life than the one tradition dictates, but aren’t sure how to achieve it.
The viewer, of course, might think “why don’t they just leave?” or “why don’t they just refuse to do X or do Y instead?” There is a man in the village who speaks up for women’s rights and helps the women sell their crafts and earn money; his educated wife is a school teacher. Yet the movie’s characters resist his forward-thinking or otherwise downplay it. And of course, no matter how forward-thinking he is, he still benefits from their labor.
Rani provides a simple explanation. Since marrying as a teenager, she cared for her son and mother-in-law; she has not been back to see her own parents even once. Her mother-in-law is now bedridden and, spoiler alert, her son is terrible, so all of the work falls to Rani. As she prepares for her son’s wedding, she remarks, “Finally I can rest. My daughter-in-law will take care of me.” She sees that she must put in the work now in order to receive the benefit later. That promise keeps the women in line. If Rani leaves (and she does), how will she get her reward?
Additionally, while the movie doesn’t address this directly, I was struck by the fact that since all of the women leave their maternal home, they must forge new alliances in their husband’s village. He has all of the connections, she is at a disadvantage. We see, for example, that Janaki is extremely isolated because the only person she “knows” is her mother-in-law. Rani and Lajjo are extremely close, but what of the woman who is never able to create a close bond? How can you make changes or leave or get help without support? Further, a woman returns home to escape an abusive marriage, but she is returned to her husband’s family; she cannot even count on the people she has known her entire life to protect her.
Bijli has bucked tradition, and is a dancer in a traveling show. She is beautiful and comes across as fiercely independent (she explains to Rani and Lajjo that men can also be barren and also extols the virtues of vibrators). She has gotten to leave her village and have adventures, but at the cost of having to have sex with paying clients and the threat of being replaced by a younger dancer. And when a new dancer shows up, Bijli tries to prove her worth by taking a group of clients, resulting in rough, traumatic sex.
Lajjo’s husband regularly beats her and chides her for being barren. And comments made by other women, even best friend Rani, cut at her, that women have no purpose other than to have children (Bijli says women’s lives are worth more than that). With Bijli’s help, Lajjo is able to conceive (and learn that sex can also be love-making, slow, sweet). Her husband is not overjoyed by enraged. He knew he was impotent and thus knows Lajjo cheated on him. Rather than seek treatment for his medical issue, or discuss it Lajjo, he uses it as another way to torture her.
Rani’s son watches porn and visits prostitutes. He beats and rapes his young wife. He steals money from his mother. At first Rani tries to ignore it, then she enables it by getting him the money he needs to pay off pimps. But as she hears Janaki’s cries, she thinks about the abuse she endured from her own husband. And when her son explains he did steal her money (Rani had accused Janaki), she pulls him off of her, and essentially throws him out of the house.
As he storms away, he yells, “I want to see how you bitches survive without a man.”
But of course, the women have been surviving without a man. It is a man who rapes, who beats, who takes their money. Women like Rani do help keep the system in place, but that system benefits the men, and it is the men who created it.
There are a few positive male characters in the movie, but ultimately, the only way to have a loving partnership is to break away from the old traditions that view women as second class, as property, as things.
And so on this terrible night, Rani realizes this, and helps Janaki escape, providing money and a cell phone (“stay in touch!”). Janaki is not going off on her own, unfortunately, but with a boy from her village she loves and who loves her. Rani explains, “She loves books, enroll her in school. Janaki is my daughter now. If you hurt her, I’ll kill you.” Still, they are leaving for the city so even if I’m unhappy about two kids getting married, I’m glad they are leaving the toxic traditions behind.
Finally, finally, Rani, Lajjo, and Bijli are able to escape into the night, laughing and happy. The audience knows it will be difficult, having to find work, a place to live, a new community. But we also know how resilient these women are, how hard they have worked already. Rani broke the cycle for Janaki; maybe they will become advocates for others. Most importantly, they have become advocates for themselves.