As a feminist activist who has worked on systemic violence on Indian women for over 15 years, I have long waited for India to produce a film like Parched. Directed by Leena Yadav with a strong, all-female, central cast, there is a cinematic beauty and integrity to the film’s narrative that is undoubtedly among the factors that have earned it 18 international awards and a place in the Oscar library. But what makes this film particularly memorable is how without cringing it makes a number of explicit and discomforting statements on how women need to deal with male violence. These, even if presented within an Indian cultural context, have universal relevance.
Parched is the story of three women, Lajjo, Rani and Bijli, in an Indian village and how their friendship helps them triumph misogyny and male violence in their personal lives. Lajjo (played by Radhika Apte), is a talented seamstress whose alcoholic husband grudges her being barren, and beats her up daily. Rani (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee), was widowed young and spent all her life supporting her mother-in-law and unruly son. She takes a loan on her house to buy a child bride, Janaki (played by Lehar Khan) for her son. And then there’s Bijli (played by Surveen Chawla), who works for the local adult entertainment company as a dancer and a prostitute. She seems the most worldly-wise and resourceful of the friends, and in control of how she negotiates her life.
Rani’s hooligan son who roams the streets with his male friends stalking and sexually harassing women, and soliciting prostitutes he can’t pay, also violently rapes his child bride whenever the mood suits him. One-third of the world’s child brides live in India, and this is perhaps one of the very few mainstream Indian films that unflinchingly shows the kind of sexual and other abuse under-age married girls are subject to. However, even in adult marriages about 60% of Indian men admit to physically abusing and raping their wives.
Indian women are also particularly vulnerable to sexual violence from other family men, as shown at the start of the film where a woman begs the village to not force her to return to her husband, as her brothers-in-law and father-in-law were sexually abusing her.
Rani who was herself a child bride robotically perpetuates the cycle of violence she endured by buying a child bride for her son, silently witnessing his sexual abuse of her, and justifying it through her own passive abuse of the girl. Rani is initially resentful of her friends being critical of her son’s behaviour, but eventually she makes the connection between the violence she has endured and the violence she is perpetuating. In helping her daughter-in-law escape, Rani finds the courage to seek her own path of freedom. She also recognizes her own role in the perpetuation of an oppressive, patriarchal system in how she raised her son. In a parting shot to her son, Rani delivers one of the most important lines of the film, “Don’t try to be a man. Learn to be human first.”
Men whose individual identities are invested in the collective, hierarchical, patriarchal order are more likely to use sexual violence as a weapon of power. Often it’s a means of establishing their position in the pecking order by asserting their “malehood.” Rani’s son and his gang of friends who stalk and harass women, and find their entertainment in porn and prostitution, bond by asserting their sexual prowess over each other.
Conversely, women are socially conditioned to define their sexuality in terms of how they serve the patriarchy’s needs, and so they are virgin, wife, mother and whore. The more aware a woman is about sex as her personal identity, need, expression and choice, the more likely she is to reject behaviour that reduces her to an “owned good” to be labelled, used and abused at will. We see Lajjo routinely and silently enduring extreme physical brutality from her husband who faults her for being barren. However, when Bijli convinces Lajjo that likely it’s her husband who is infertile, it’s an eye-opener for Lajjo. When Bijli arranges her meeting with a certain mystic lover, Lajjo not only gets pregnant but for the first time experiences sexual ecstasy, and discovers a confidence about her own needs which helps her stand up to her husband. Similarly, Rani as a young widow, in keeping with social expectations has long squashed her libido. She owns a mobile phone, which the village committee had objected to for all women. Through the phone, Rani connects with an unknown admirer who she never meets, but through whom she experiences an awakening of her sexuality which she secretly relishes. In a subtle act of symbolic sexual rebellion the women giggle over their use of that mobile as a vibrator. While mobile phones have been banned for women in many Indian villages because the men believe it “ruins” women, it is a pointer to how social restrictions set on women through clothing, behaviour, movement and laws are always a means of controlling women’s sexuality, and thereby a revolution.
At the start of the film Bijli, who works for the local adult entertainment company as a pole dancer and a prostitute, is shown to be in control of her life and choices as she negotiates the terms of her work with her boss. She refuses clients if they are not to her liking, even if they offer good money. This is shown in sharp contrast to Rani’s daughter-in-law, who has no choice but to submit to her husband’s sexual abuse as he believes that by having paid a dowry he has bought the right to use her as and when he wants.
Bijli, though, understands only too well that for the men, she, as all women, is only a sexual product. But even as she regards this view with contempt, she’s confident of her ability to hold her place in their misogynistic world. However, when one of the company’s workers who she assumed was in love with her, turns out to be only interested in stealing her from the company to become her pimp, she decides to chuck the system and strike out independently. When her new client subjects her to extreme sexual violence, she realizes that her belief in her agency and choice was only an illusion. Her protection was guaranteed only as long as she was a product whose use was negotiated between men.
If one goes through stories of women who struggle against gender violence and injustice, from any part of the world, we often find these women to be alone and vulnerable. This is particularly true for when that violence happens within a family or community. The film puts the onus on women to reach out to and help each other, share their stories, and pool their energies and resources to fight the system of male violence. The final segment of the film shows the three women driving off into the open space in a quirkily painted open, three-wheeler, discussing their plans and options, as they leave their houses and village behind.
This conclusion was particularly interesting to me, because it almost inverted the classic approach of the feminist movement. Much of feminist outrage today is outwardly directed. We take our slogans out onto the streets demanding safety in our public and work spaces. But the message of the film that women everywhere need to heed is that we must, first, bring the feminist revolution into our homes where male violence is bred. If women cannot be safe from male violence at home, they cannot expect to be safe from the same men outside.