In the shadow of the censor board’s latest absurdity in not letting a film pass because it was too “lady oriented”, let’s throwback to one of the most powerful films of 2016, that was just not watched by as many people as it should have. It is a rare film that explored women’s right to claim ownership of their own bodies and their individualities – something that Mr Nihalani can’t seem to digest again.
Parched, an internationally acclaimed film is an authentic portrayal of the deprivations faced by women in rural India. While this movie is set in a village of Rajasthan – the nature of abuse, lack of independence and freedom depicted of the three female characters is reminiscent of what is reality to a majority of Indian women.
Yet the message of the movie is far from an expose, but rather a simple story of three women who are starved for acceptance and love in their community and their homes, and seek comfort in their shared yearning for happiness. Distinct from past portrayals of such deprivation, this movie reminds us, or would have if we had watched it, that the path to happiness and equality is in ourselves.
The Relationships of Lajjo, Rani and Bijli
Each of the three protagonists in the film – played by Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Surveen Chawla – represent different roles in society: a tortured housewife, an un-thanked mother and daughter-in-law, and a woman ostracised for being a prostitute – divided by their experiences but united in their oppression. It covers the array of brutality faced in a violently patriarchal world – child brides and bargains over dowry, invisible widows, prostitutes, marital abuse of a physical, mental and sexual nature. And this is only background noise. The movie focuses on the women’s path to happiness, as they find the courage in each other, to better understand themselves.
The character played by Radhika Apte (Lajjo) is ridden with guilt, having been convinced that she is barren, and physically abused by her alcoholic husband for being so.
On the other hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee’s character (Rani) is a middle-aged widow, bearing sole responsibility for her newly wed and ungrateful son and ageing mother-in-law. In addition, there is the implication of the relationship she shared with her late husband where she was routinely raped without provocation or protest.
The character played by Surveen Chawla (Bijli) probably demands the greatest exploration – emerging as a symbol of determination, worldly knowledge and freedom for the other two women. She is ostracised from society for choosing to be a prostitute (a decision made to become financially independent), and with it, liberated from the pressures to please said society. She is the only one of the three women who enjoys such freedoms that we might take for granted. Paramount in these freedoms is her freedom over her own body.
Lajjo and Rani seek refuge in Bijli’s outwardly emboldened and rightfully demanding personality, which pushes them to start demanding more (or at least enough) from their own lives. Despite the most violent and outrageous violations of basic human rights that these women face, their ideas of happiness are largely centred around having just the most fundamental freedom over their own bodies – whether the freedom to orgasm, the freedom to express physical exhaustion after a day’s work, or just the freedom to protect themselves.
A Woman’s Right to Express Her Sexuality
The movie boldly explores the ideas of sexual curiosity and awakening.
In one gut-wrenching scene – that was grossly publicised for all the wrong reasons – Bijli sets up a meeting with a stranger in a cave to have sex with Lajjo. As a woman who has only ever been raped, she reacts to the touch of the man with unmistakable fear: pulling up her skirt and covering her face with her hands.
This sub-plot depicts how intrinsically these women are tied to society, despite its brutality. In a powerful analogy of society itself, Rani is seen listening in silence as her son returns home inebriated, and forces himself on his wife. Lajjo, physically abused, and mentally tortured, even on learning that perhaps she was not barren after all, genuinely believes that what will bring her husband and thus her, happiness, is if she were to bear a child for him – a right over her body that society has long-since claimed for themselves.
Just to drive that point home, media’s reaction to Apte’s “scandalous sex scene” reeked of gendered moral codes because they forgot that Adil Hussain – the male actor who plays ‘the man in the cave’ – was equally undressed.
What is immensely satisfying about this film is its ability to discuss patriarchy and the vastly problematic society we live in, without losing its characters. With its authentic rural setting but universal ideas, it depicts oppression that everyone can relate to. This is also why it is such an important film – because if we can relate to the oppression, maybe we can soon relate to breaking free from it too. When the women express their smallest fears and their sexual desires, you understand and empathise. The film is successful in addressing how a woman’s want for sex should not be shamed, but celebrated.
Celebrated, Mr Nihalani.
And this brings us to the latest dissent of women’s right to expressing their sexuality. Why is it that when sexual fantasising is being done by men, albeit by exerting their apparent and uncontested ownership of any and every woman’s body, the movies can depict as they please? But the moment women claim ownership of their own bodies and especially their sexuality, society and specifically the torchbearer of Indian culture, are unable to digest it.
(Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar work as research associates at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.)