'Parched': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Well-intentioned, but wide of the mark.

Leena Yadav's contemporary melodrama stars Tannishtha Chatterjee as a widowed mother seeking a better future for her son.

Set in an isolated village where long-revered customs are rapidly changing, Indian writer-director Leena Yadav’s third feature is a contemporary morality tale that critiques the often harsh treatment of women in the absence of egalitarian social norms. With news reports of violence against women repeatedly emerging from South Asia, the film should make for a timely festival item and could see limited theatrical play in receptive markets. 

Yadav’s protagonist is Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a widow in her 30s living in a rural enclave in northwestern India. Herself married as a child bride and widowed two years later at the age of 16, Rani is now preparing the arranged marriage of her 17-year-old son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to Janaki (Lehar Khan), a neighbor girl two years younger. Although neither is prepared to marry, their parents insist on a traditional match, with Janaki moving into Rani’s cramped hut to join Gulab after the ceremony. Rani’s best friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is thrilled about the wedding and the prospect of Rani becoming a grandmother, especially since she believes that she’s incapable of bearing children herself -- the pretext for frequent beatings she receives from her violent, alcoholic husband.

Rani’s expectations of a happy home life get dashed after Gulab rejects Janaki, preferring to spend his nights out drinking and chasing other women with his single buddies. When Rani’s close friend Bijli (Surveen Chawla), an erotic dancer and prostitute, arrives in the village with a traveling sideshow to entertain the local male population, the three women have the opportunity to socialize and commiserate. Bijli’s offhanded observation that maybe Lajjo isn’t infertile after all and that perhaps the fault lies with her husband sets in motion a series of events with the potential to change each of the women’s circumstances in ways even they can’t entirely imagine.

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Yadav’s concerns about discrimination and violence against women are evident in nearly every scene of the film, as her script positions each of the principal characters to undergo an experience of self-actualization in defiance of prevailing patriarchal norms. While this perspective is critical of the individual circumstances that oppress each of these women, any broader indictment of prevailing cultural trends is much more diffuse, more likely to attribute blame to dysfunctional traditions rather than any specific political, social or religious institutions. It’s a delicate balancing act that sometimes appears to lack conviction, given the specificity of the settings that Yadav has selected to contextualize the narrative.

Nonetheless, it appears to be a script that the lead actresses readily assimilate, delivering a trio of clearly committed performances. Chatterjee in particular must demonstrate the full spectrum of transformation from enabler to disrupter, first acting as a victim and agent of oppression before discovering methods of appropriating local traditions to her own advantage. Bolstered by a diversity of commercial and independent film credits, Apte and Chawla ably keep pace with Chatterjee, providing crucial perspective for Rani as she assesses the inevitability of her own circumstances. A large contingent of expressive nonprofessional supporting and background performers provides a rich tapestry of village types to round out the sizeable cast.   

Working closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic) and Alexander Payne collaborator Kevin Tent, Yadav compassionately frames the lives of characters experiencing nearly constant turmoil, while Carpenter burnishes the ocher and orange hues of the Rajasthan desert locations to a subtle glow. 

Production companies: Shivalaya Entertainment, Blue Waters Motion Picture Production

Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Lehar Khan, Riddhi Sen

Director-screenwriter: Leena Yadav

Producers: Leena Yadav Ajay Devgn, Aseem Bajaj, Gulab Singh, Rohan Jagdale

Executive producers: Anirudh Tanwar, Hughes Winborne

Director of photography: Russell Carpenter

Production designer: Amardeep Behl

Costume designer: Ashima Belapurkar

Editor:  Kevin Tent

Music: Hitesh Sonik

Sales: The Gersh Agency  

No rating, 116 minutes

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