Although it arrives well after “Parched” begins, there may be no better announcement of Leena Yadav’s third feature than the musical number “My Body is an Earthquake” that busts through the screen roughly 20 minutes in. The introduction to one of its three central characters, a group of women living in a small village in India, the fun and frisky song and its accompanying writhing by a seductive prostitute named Bijili (Surveen Chawla) can’t help but entertain and yet forces the audience to consider the circumstances as Bijilli may be more sexually liberated than others in her town, but still finds herself trapped performing at the behest of men, the price for not submitting to an arranged marriage in the conservative community.
However, her fearless attitude remains a breath of fresh air for Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), her childhood friend on the verge of marrying off her only (and petulant) son in such a wedding, and Lajjo (Radhika Apte), Rani’s friend whose presumed infertility has made her alcoholic husband’s abuse even worse. The same could be said of “Parched” in general, which hardly lingers in misery even in as dire a situation as each of the women find themselves in while bringing feminist issues to the fore, exploding onto the screen in a burst of bright colors that extend from its visual palette right into Yadav’s wicked wordplay. As sharp with its humor as it is with its critiques on the gender inequity that has lasted for generations, Yadav’s confident direction sets the ideal tone to tell a story of women coming together to empower themselves.
But even traveling across rural areas to conduct interviews with women like the ones in the film and putting together an all-star international crew including “Titanic” cinematographer Russell Carpenter to bring “Parched” to the screen, making the movie was hardly a cakewalk, shooting in Rajasthan after many villages balked at letting a production led by a woman in to film, fearing that it might corrupt the locals. After a triumphant premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Yadav explained why it was worth the struggle to make “Parched,” reminding India of its history of celebrating sexuality and why the themes of the film should create aftershocks throughout the world.
The actress who plays Rani in the film wanted to work together and we started exploring certain subjects. She started telling me stories about these women that she met in this village while she was shooting a previous film – and they were actually really funny stories, so I told her, “Let’s make ‘Sex in the Village.'” I started writing a treatment, and because there’s so much of violence going on around and it’s so interconnected, those things also came into this. We traveled again for another three weeks through the villages, just talking and sharing with these women. Then I came back to Bombay and I said, “Actually, the stories are not very different here [between the village and the city]. It will be so interesting to play something in this remote village, which actually resonates in Mumbai or New York – in different circumstances, but the inside of it is similar. I sent out my draft to a lot of friends internationally and instead of reacting to the story, they would write back more stories for me. That’s when I realized, “Okay, so these are things we need to talk about at a global level. This is the film.”
Each of these three women – four, if you include Janaki, the new bride of Rani’s son in an arranged marriage – seem to be emblematic of something specific, but when you research so many stories, how much did you want them to represent different things?
I was trying to address a lot of things…where the hair is not just necessarily the haircut but an expectation of something that we’re always falling short of because of this thin image being curved out as perfection. Similarly with the prostitute, what I was exploring was the exterior and how everything is [about] how you look and there’s an expiration date on that.
With Rani, there were a lot of themes I tried to explore [in terms of] the whole conditioning to play roles [in society]. At first, you’re a bride, then you become the mother-in-law and then there’s this bar [you can’t surpass]. You don’t realize how you slip into those roles or question it because that’s the way you’ve seen it happen generation after generation. Within all that, I think there is a Rani in me, and a little Lajjo and Bijili and Janaki in me. That’s how I was able to create these characters which I think a lot of women will connect to in the different aspects of these different stories.
With every film, I want to explore different kinds of collaborations because I really think film is a language of emotions. It is universal. One day, I would like to have an absolutely international crew – one from France, one from Germany, and tell the same story. That will be so amazing. [On “Parched,”] I sent the script to Russell’s partner to read and she reacted really beautifully, then Russell really reacted so beautifully and said, “We need to make this film.” That’s how it started.
Since I wanted to reach out to a global audience, I did want another perspective because sometimes cinema gets restricted just in the terms of the grammar. If you only make films in India, maybe grammatically you’re specific to something, and I wanted to break those certain grammars.
Because your previous films were Bollywood productions, did doing a film independently feel different?
Storywise not necessarily, but my previous films were Bollywood films only because they had big Bollywood stars in it. In subject matter, I don’t think they were very Bollywood. They were very, very different ideas, even for India. In fact, my second film [“Teen Patti”] had Ben Kingsley and Amitabh Bachchan in there, and the thing is that my previous two films, I had a very different idea and I would try to reach out to a wider audience because I had really big stars from India, but at the end of it, it wasn’t really [the film] I wanted to see.
I wanted to make one film the way I wanted to make it. Actually, my husband [Aseem Bajaj], who’s a cinematographer, said, “I’m going to produce this film for you and it’s not going to have any restrictions of who to pick or how to do it. You just go make the film you want.” It was a very, very difficult process because getting financing for a film like this [isn’t easy] and [my husband] committed to something really huge and he came through with it.
Although I have limited knowledge about current Indian cinema, it seems unusual to see the sexual frankness that this film has. Was there was a certain element of self-censorship that you had to get over to make this?
I know as a person I don’t have that, but in fact the actresses were just talking about it [in another interview]. This are who we are. It’s just in projection [on film] that we’ve become those people for some reason. India is the country of Kama Sutra, after all. We are very expressive and very physical people, but we’ve been conditioned into these attitudes about what’s right and wrong and who all of us are is in the film in some way. Like you’re saying, it’s very progressive for the kind of cinema that we’ve been censored and destined into making.
One of the wonderful elements in the film is how you may show the despicable behavior of men, it’s clear that the real villain are these prevailing attitudes that have suppressed women, even to each other. Was that a difficult idea to convey?
Yes, but that’s the point. I do not see the men as villains in the film. For me, they are as much victims as the women are and it was very conscious to show what women can do to women. It’s about questioning what we have accepted due to conditioning. What is a norm? Why is it there? We need to question that.
There’s a recurring phone call to Rani from an caller claiming to be Shahrukh Khan – she, of course, may be the only person in India to not know who that is – but what starts out as a running gag turns into her connection to the world outside her village. How did that idea come about?
The idea came from the woman who inspired Rani’s character. We were visiting her and we had this conversation and at one point she held my hand and says, “Do you know what it means to not have been touched for 17 years?” I couldn’t even process that in that one moment. We spent the whole day with her and she [talked about] a lot of points, [including] getting this phone call and [hearing] giggling [on the other end of the line]. I asked her, “Who is it?” She said, “I don’t know who this is. There’s just this guy who calls.” I said, “Why don’t you meet him?” and she’s like, “Are you crazy, what if it turns out to be somebody in my village?” But she said, “I’m okay, I feel nice talking to him on the phone.”
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting on this?
Everyday. We were dealing with very, very sensitive things everyday and we had lot of logistic restrictions, shooting out there in a real village. More than that, my actors and I were in this emotional world all the time, but thankfully, we just had the most brilliantly collaborative team. It’s like the perfect team that you always dream of. Every time there was a problem, it felt like, “Okay, we’ll sort it out together.” There was no such mountain that felt like, “Oh, we can’t climb this.” We just climbed every mountain together.
“Parched” will open on June 17th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, New York at the AMC Empire 25 and Cine Grand in Fremont and Camera 12 in San Jose.