Women Touching Women, on Screen
Filmmaker Leena Yadav takes an unflinching look at female friendship, sexuality, and misogyny in India in her film, "Parched."
In the film Parched by Leena Yadav, a young woman named Bijli, clad in a colorful sari, asks her friends Rani and Lajjo why women are always the ones to get "fucked" in swear words. "Motherfucker, sisterfucker, why not fatherfucker? Or sonfucker?" Bijli exasperatedly questions. It's a joke, but I find myself instantaneously questioning the blatant double standard. Then she leans over the shoulders of an abandoned clay-built castle and screams, "UNCLE FUCKER!" as loud as she possibly can, leaving me feeling awakened, thrilled.
Parched, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, is a film about women. The film is also one of the most honest, uncompromising portrayals of female friendship I've ever seen on screen. Set against the backdrop of a rural Indian village, the story centers on the life of Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a 32-year-old widow who has a testy, entitled young son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen); Bijli (Surveen Chawla), a local showgirl and prostitute who has been longtime friends with Rani; and Lajjo (Radhika Apte) a young woman in an abusive relationship—her belligerent husband is the villainous village charmer, Manoj (Mahesh Balraj).
Meeting me in a hotel in Toronto two days after her film's premiere, Yadav says these characters were inspired by women she met while traveling through Indian villages for research and inspiration. According to her, their stories of pain and joy—but also, surprisingly, their earnestness about sexuality—moved her. She had the kernel of an idea, but wasn't sure how the story should unfold, so she looked to other people and their stories, too.
We see men onscreen discussing women, but very rarely the inverse.
During one conversation, she said, the actress Tannishtha Chatterjee shared a story about filming in a remote village. Yadav suddenly struck gold. She says, "The women of the village kept asking her how she would survive, sexually, without a man." So Yadav started conceptualizing a narrative. "For them, sex was such a basic thing. They were very curious about how a person lasts without sex for forty days. How would [Chatterjee] manage on the shoot? Did she have an arrangement with members of the crew?" Yadav laughs. "That's how I decided to write about sex in the village."
Realizing there was a way she could harness, elucidate, and demonstrate the beautiful synergy that exists when women talk to other women—and the emotional honesty of conversations rupturing lines of class and circumstance—she devised a challenging, profound film treatment. We often see men onscreen discussing women, but very rarely the inverse. In discussing men, Rani, Bijli, and Lajjo don't hold anything back. "[Even] in the most conservative households women get together in the kitchen and they discuss the guy who could get it up, and the guy who couldn't get it up," Yadav says.
Despite the obvious cultural markers of Indian society, you can place Parched, culturally, anywhere. Yadav has a unique ability to evoke the very deep sensibilities of womanhood and female sexuality: The trapped secrets of infidelity or desire, and abuse; the realities we rarely are allowed to share. Of all the people Yadav based characters on, she says the woman who inspired Rani was particularly compelling to her: "She cooked all day for us. We talked and laughed. She was needling and then, at one point, she turned to me and said, 'I haven't been touched in 17 years. Do you know what that means?'" Moved and inspired, Yadav felt that her specific story had to be shared with an international audience. "That's something I really wanted to explore: The necessity of touch. I wanted to capture that energy, that soul in the film."
Yadav says she struggled, at first, with telling these stories: How could she weave in a tale about the lightheartedness of these women but also their sadness? She felt it was important for her to balance both their strength and their day-to-day struggles with internalized misogyny, while also juxtaposing it with the genuine happiness they found in their friendships, or the small pleasures of their lives. Parched is not a story of anguish. It's a story of resilience in light of pain. "I did post-production in LA and I would be in the cutting room all day," Yadav says. "After a couple of days I felt like I was going mad. Not being near people, not touching people—it was suffocating. I stopped eating food because I couldn't eat it with my hands. So I wanted to really explore that a lot with Rani and Lajjo: The meaning of touch for the both of them." What would touch mean to two women who had never been loved by the men they were with?
At one point in the film, after Manoj beats up Lajjo—again—Rani comes to her aid. Lajjo has collapsed and is incapable of moving, so Rani nurses her wounds, slowly removing her top to get to the bruises, exposing Lajjo's breasts. It's subtle, a shot filmed with fragility and tenderness. As Rani begins to caress Lajjo's breasts, the experience looks more familiar than sexual, erotic only due to its earnestness. It's a loaded and nuanced moment. "It's a scene that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they call it a lesbian scene, but in fact it's a mother-daughter scene, or a friends scene—it takes on every role between two women," Yadav explains.
It's a scene that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they call it a lesbian scene, but in fact it's a mother-daughter scene, or a friends scene.
Women touch each other—sometimes sexually, sometimes non-sexually. Female relationships encapsulate the diversity and the multitude of dimensions and roles that women exist in; we can be maternal to each other, romantic, or even sexual. Women explore themselves through their relationships with other women. In that sense, female friendships are far more varied than male relationships. Although the scene with Rani and Lajjo may seem simply sexual, the moment shows their desire for care as Rani's fingers linger on Lajjo's nipples. It reveals the desire to be validated through sensory feeling.
A stereotype exists about people never discussing sex in India. Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai has famously never kissed one of her onscreen co-stars—presumably because sex, and the depiction of it, is still a contentious issue in India. In 1998, after the release of Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta's Fire, many prominent Indian politicians called the film immoral, pornographic, and against Indian tradition and culture. They then claimed the film's depiction of lesbianism was "not a part of Indian history or culture." (Fire is a film about two sister-in-laws, Sita and Radha, who live in the same house and fall in love with each other.) Members of the far-right political party, Shiv Sena, ransacked theaters across India, smashing glass panes and attempting to shut down screenings of the film. A lot of this, I presume, was backlash towards the audacity that women choose their sexual outlet, removing men from the equation of pleasure.
As Yadav reminded the audience in a panel after the screening of Parched, "India is the land of [the] Kama Sutra." Conversations about sex, however, seem to be confined to the kitchen, or enclaves of women, and not as much on the pop-cultural forefront. This is why films like Parched matter, why Yadav's frankness about sex is simply revolutionary for all women. It's about demanding more for both women and men.
How many men in the West know anything about the act of making love?
At the same screening of Parched, a white man stood up and said he hoped people would see this film particularly for the scene where Lajjo has sex with a shaman-esque man of great spirit. The scene, which is erotic and highly charged, illustrates Lajjo's growing self awareness through sex. It's portrayed as an odyssey of deep arousal, both sexual and spiritual; for the first time, Lajjo finally learns sex is supposed to be pleasurable. The man in the audience followed his observation with the wry question: "How many men in the West know anything about the act of making love?" The room, which was full of women of all demographics, laughed raucously at his response.
In many ways, Parched tells a universal story; it reflects the stories of all women because women around the world have a lot in common. "When I shared this script with friends around the world, they would send me their stories," Yadav says, her eyes big, warm, and watery. "Nobody interacted with it like a script, so that's why I made the characters symbolic of something more, symbolic of issues that I wanted to highlight."
What's so profound about Parched—beyond the superb storytelling and its universality—is its critique of the patriarchy, which, obviously, is also universal: Although the women in this film grapple with systemic misogyny, Yadav emphasizes how that happens outside India. "With this movie in particular I get, 'I didn't know things were so bad in India!' a lot, and I think to myself, Are you kidding me?" she says. "People forget it happens on every level. If an audience isn't perceptive, they sit on their high horse and judge—like, 'Oh poor things, is this what happens?' If they are really receptive they'll understand it's happening in their backyard."
In recent years, the feminist movement in India has been gaining significant traction. After the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern, India has been in a frenzy to give light to this important conversation. People took to the streets to protest the Indian government in New Delhi after this heinous incident, demanding adequate security for women. Thousands of protesters clashed with security forces, causing a slow but real shift in the narrative for women in India.
Notably, at the Toronto Film Festival this year, Parched was one of many other films about Indian women—most of which were directed by Indian women. Angry Indian Goddesses by Pan Nalin focuses on modern life for women in India, and the very moving Guilty by Meghna Gulzar follows the highly publicized Noida double murder case, in which Aarushi Talwar, a 14-year-old girl, was found dead with her throat cut in her own bed. With more and more platforms for Indian women, a major cultural change is occurring in real time.
I've seen violence. Violence with my friends, violence on the streets, but nobody talks.
"I've seen violence. Violence with my friends, violence on the streets, but nobody talks," Yadav says. "A woman friend of mine made a really beautiful observation. She said, 'Leena, Parched made me realize how many levels we are covering up. We are covering up with laughter, with makeup. We are just covering up all the time.'" Yadav reiterates that women need to help other women: "What's so scary about the patriarchy is that the strongest believers, the people who have bought into the most, are women."
She explores this idea in the film as well. When Rani's son Gulab finally does marry, his bride, Janaki (Lehar Khan), she has chopped off all her hair (we later find out she does so in hopes of cancelling the wedding). This infuriates Rani: Slowly, we see her morph into an abuser. Convinced that Janaki will bring her shame, she crusades against her, vilifying her new daughter-in-law endlessly. Yadav's message is clear: If you believe in your own rights as a woman, you should also believe in the rights of other women. Protect them, foster them, be good to them.
"When you're a daughter-in-law you think your mother-in-law is shit, but when you become a mother-in-law you do the same thing," Yadav says. "It's the same cycle. You justify it in your head: It's okay! I went through it, so she can go through it. Or you start thinking, She needs to understand her place in the house." Towards the end of the film, Rani's redemption with Janaki is meager, but ultimately powerful. Yadav avoids quaintness, and makes sure that we see how effectual—and liberating—small acts of kindness can truly be.
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The last question during the Q&A came from a man who stood up to thank Yadav. His voice, bellowing with passion, kept breaking. It almost seemed as though Yadav had saved his life. Her partner, and well-known producer, Aseem Bajaj, told the man that this movie completely floored him as well. "It's changed me," he said. "It's completely changed the way I interact with women." Mahesh Balraj, who plays Manoj, agreed: "I'm different now when I look at women. I think of them differently." Yadav just smiled in response, her head down, hands crossed over.
As I watched and followed her offstage, she was met with a flurry of thank yous. I walked behind her all the way through the cinema, more people coming towards her as we made our way through the aisles and out into the foyer, where I was met with her publicist. I wanted to say something that wouldn't sound cliché; unlike everyone else in the theater, I didn't know how to say thank you or express how much this film meant to me. Everything felt embarrassing. She turned to me, and I could only say, "Hey, I'll be interviewing you tomorrow." She said, "Hey," too, smiled, and turned away from me. Soon after her publicist walked her to a meeting. I stood for a few seconds longer, feeling truly blissed.
I couldn't say to her how, as a woman, as a South Asian woman, and as a woman invested in the lives of the many other women who are abused and harassed for their gender, this film is not just necessary. It is life-affirming. At our interview, Yadav reticently describes how her position as an artist is always undermined by her sex first, her race second. "In this industry people want to constantly remind me, and call me, a woman director, but I'm a director," she says. "Nobody would ever call a male director a male director."