“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”: a review of Leena Yadav’s feminist movie ‘Parched’ (2015)

By Sumaira Majeed

‘Parched’ is Leena Yadav’s attempt to throw a light on rampant misogyny through the tale of four women who are raped, subjugated, exploited, beaten and treated as objects in a patriarchal setup.  The name is highly symbolic of women who are “parched” of their rights. A drama about female subjugation and liberation that plays first like a horror story, then like a rosy fantasy, ‘‘Parched’ argues that rural India continues to offer little for women other than servitude and abuse.

Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a 32-year-old widower, is about to marry off her 17-year-old son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to teenager Janaki (Lehar Khan). Forced to mortgage her hut to pay for these nuptials, Rani finds herself in dire straits when Janaki arrives for the ceremony with her hair shorn. This turn of events brings shame upon their family, and further stokes the nastiness of Gulab, an entitled punk who, with his friends’ raucous support, frequently visits sex workers.

Lajjo (Radhika Apte), a free spirit suffers beatings at the hands of her husband for being both the household’s breadwinner, and for failing to give him a child. Lajjo’s supposed infertility is treated as a curse, though no worse than the promiscuity of the dancer/sex worker Bijli (Surveen Chawla), whose ability to attract the town’s men to her shows —and into her bed, for a price — is vilified, even as her customers’ unfaithful behavior, which often includes rape, is accepted as merely par for the course.

Despite being a female director, Yadav has indoctrinated the male gaze and allows characters to function as objects for scopophilia (sexual pleasure derived from seeing others engage in sexual intercourse) which focuses on female parts and presents women as objects. Bijli’s different body parts are focused on closely in the movie as she wears short dresses and dances. The inclusion of this scene attracts the male audience and provides voyeuristic pleasure with females as mere commodities. Yadav, being a female, felt an urge to add such scenes in film which portray women as objects having no agency and having to depend on male’s servitude for survival. They are the breadwinners for the whole family.

The psychological experiences of both sexes are different. Feminists assume women can be liberated even if they are in the fields of prostitution and can show their agency. Sexologist Annie Sprinkle wrote in her book: “Whores are not afraid of sex. … Whores are rebelling against the absurd, patriarchal, sex-negative laws against their profession and are fighting for the legal right to receive financial compensation for their valuable work.”

In the movie, Bijli is a sex worker who refuses her clients and the pimp when she is in not in the mood to work. Yadav looks at a sex worker in the same manner as a male director and propagates the concept of sex work as a kind of imprisonment from which she can never be liberated. Though she may appear carefree, she longs for a “regular” life. Despite the fact that she sets the terms of sale of her body, she is unable to stop the violence and abuse that she faces.

Mulvey argues that the gaze may not be male but it is always masculine. There is a vivid description of a love-making scene of Radika Apte which portrays the lack of agency of females in sexual activities. A man is an agent exercising an agency and female is numb and dumb towards romance. She is even unaware to romance in a good way because she has never been given a space even to think about romance apart from intercourse. The politics of pleasure is totally controlled by men. This scene was shot keeping in mind the male audience. The ideal egos in film are largely represented by men, who feature as the active protagonists, and its identification is also reserved for men.

The women are filmed not facing the camera whereas the men are featured looking directly into the camera. Rani’s son, the pimp and the pimp’s assistant all look directly into the camera, exerting their agency and giving the audience less chance to be looked at whereas the women  have their eyes cast down. This give viewers a complete space for turning them into objects.

‘Parched’ is a movie which lets women speak in their own voices and negotiate their lives, struggle with the realities of gender and discover the pleasures of their sexualities as they traverse the course of the movie. These women may not always be triumphant but they try: they are active agents of their own lives. In the end, they all don’t come out flawless, but each woman grows with the arc of the narrative.                

‘Parched’ therefore is a chronicle of women’s attempts to make sense of their scars, while exploring their sexualities, and trying to meet the world head on. Women, from Mulvey’s point of view, can only watch a movie from a rather masochistic point of view: seeing themselves being objectified and not the other way around.