4 October 2016

A Feminist Fairy Tale

My Mirror column:

A picture-perfect desert village serves as the setting for Parched’s fantasy of female freedom.

Leena Yadav’s Parched, completed in 2015 and finally released in India last week courtesy Ajay Devgn, is a feminist fairy tale. By which I mean that absolutely terrible things happen to the four female protagonists — three women in their 30s, and one 15-year-old — but we know they’ll be okay in the end. And not just okay: the film allows us the pleasure of watching these women triumph over a system weighted entirely against them. This might seem to stay within the Hindi movie tradition of the happy ending. But unlike older Hindi films, Parched’s climax doesn’t force its fictional context to accommodate the heroines’ unfulfilled desires; instead, it suggests that fulfilment is only possible if they leave their context behind.

This seemed to me a bit of a cop-out. But I don’t mean to suggest that this is a film to be dismissed. There is plenty going on in Parched— and plenty going for it, too. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (of Titanic and True Lies fame) and edited by Kevin Tent (The Descendants, Nebraska, Sideways), Parched is a pacy film that puts its desert locations to picturesque use, and comes packaged with an attractive folksy score that includes the one Manganiyar song perfect for a Rajasthan-set girl-power movie: Bai-sa laad ka ghana. It’s also full of engaging actors: Surveen Chawla as the feisty but insecure stage dancer Bijli, Radhika Apte overdoing it a bit as the happy-go-lucky “baanjh” Lajo, while Tannishtha Chatterjee underplays beautifully as the widowed, lonely Rani. Leher Khan, last seen as the award-winning child star of 2013’s sincere Jalpari, is wonderfully effective as the big-eyed teenage bride Rani brings home for her son Gulab (a very persuasive Riddhi Sen), as is Chandan Anand as Bijli’s tongue-tied and hopeful assistant Raju.

Given these ingredients and its pleasure-focused feminist politics, Parched could have been that terrific thing: a Mirch Masala-plus-Manthan updated to the 21st century. But Yadav (who has previously directed the abysmal Sanjay Dutt-Aishwarya Rai starrer Shabd and an Amitabh Bachchan-Ben Kingsley thriller called Teen Patti!) seems oddly shy of the specificity that would require.

She sets her film in an unidentifiable locale, refusing to choose between Gujarat and Rajasthan, or telling us what communities the hamlet is occupied by (the plot about bride price rather than dowry suggests tribal Gujarat, but that’s just one element in the mix). Accents, too, come and go quite a bit, allowing in a strong Rajasthani inflection before suddenly switching back to Standard Hindi.

The film hands Lajo and Rani potential NGO-supported careers based on their embroidering talent, but never gives us a real glimpse of their work. Their own clothes are always seductively embroidered, without letting us place them in any community. In general, the village and its interiors feel like a rather stunning Rajasthali emporium — all mirrored earthen walls and stunning silver jewellery, with not one broken or ugly or plastic thing in sight. And the ‘fairground’ outpost, where the badass Bijli entertains all comers, seems intended to unite every kind of exportable Indian dancing body — from a seductive Bollywoodised nautanki to a dehati pole dancer, even a man in ghodi costume. The film’s most fantastic fantasy, however, is reserved for the sexual sphere: Adil Hossain’s guest appearance as the ash-smeared, free-spirited sadhu who offers soft-focus service as both impregnator-for-hire and orgasm-initiator.

All this desi exotica is clearly intended to woo a foreign film festival audience. Urban Indian movie-goers who’re irritated might want to focus instead on fun Bollywood references — like Bijli Chashmewali’s Aishwarya-like pink shades, or the shy enthusiasm with which Rani greets her own Bidi Jalai Le mobile ringtone, suggesting that she may have aged before her time, but the embers aren’t quite dead yet.

Yadav and her co-writer Supratik Sen (credited for dialogue) create warmly memorable women, whose easy equations with each other — bawdy, angry and emotional in turn — make for a happy-making female friendship film. These women aren’t perfect; I was struck in particular by Yadav’s grasp of how patriarchy is often perpetuated by women who don’t know any other way to be: Rani is the product of a society in which women are set up to remain unfulfilled by male partners and end up focusing their aspirations on their sons, keeping the unfortunate cycle in motion. Also, despite a great deal of recurring male violence against women, Yadav is keen to keep her film from feeling grim — and she mostly succeeds. There are grave missteps, though: such as the mistreated Champa, who seems intended to remind us how much worse things actually are ‘in real life’, but ends up ringing false.

Pink, the other recent Hindi film to give us both believable female friendship and political engagement with women’s sexuality, was pitched very differently, and in seeking to convert an Indian audience, gave away its punchy political messaging to a man (and the Bachchan baritone). Parched doesn’t do that, but it makes its men horrific villains, clumsy cowards, or unreal receptacles for female fantasy. But maybe Parched’s parade of men as wish-fulfilling genies, saviour princes or ogres who have to be slain should simply be seen as part of its fairy-tale mode. I just wish escape wasn’t the only solution it had to offer.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Oct 2016.

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