Director and writer Leena Yadav set “Parched“ in a slightly fictionalized world: the characters live in a dusty invented rural village called Ujhaas, modeled on similar villages in northwestern India, and they speak an invented dialect. But the rest of the details—the forced child marriages, the financial difficulties, the spousal and familial rape, the physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic husbands—are all drawn from stories that Yadav heard from women in those villages while traveling to find a story. “Parched” is a filmmaker’s attempt to understand how and why these women continue to live.
At 32, Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) has been a widow for half her life, and is mortgaging her future to pay for a dowry and wedding so her son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), can have a beautiful wife: Janaki (Lehar Khan), a young girl from a neighboring village. Gulab is busy falling in with the wrong crowd, a group of young men in the village who fear the changes in the village's women that will come with progress—like education and access to resources—but are mostly interested in whores, booze, and growing into the shoes their fathers left behind. Rani's best friend is Lajjo (Radhika Apte), who desperately wishes for a child but can't conceive and is battered nightly by her alcoholic husband Manoj (Mahesh Balraj). Lajjo is also a skilled seamstress, and she and Rani, along with other women, work for a local entrepreneur Kishan (Sumeet Vyas) and are saving for the village to finally get a satellite and television—their first real connection to the outside world. The two women are friends with Bijli (Surveen Chawla, in a particularly strong performance), a dancer in a touring troupe who performs erotic dances nightly to cheering crowds of men, and also entertains clients made weak by desire.
The women live in a tightly controlled world, hemmed in by tradition, but in their private spaces they talk about love, sex and their dreams for the future. Life seems like an unending cycle of hardship punctuated by small bits of happiness. But it all breaks down. On the day of her son's marriage, Rani discovers that Janaki's hair has been cut off, dishonoring her in her village. Manoj's brutality towards Lajjo grows more fierce. Bijli finds out a new girl might replace her.
To tell such extreme stories is tricky, and sometimes “Parched”—which is ultimately a stirring melodrama—falls on the side of caricature with its male characters. Every man is a villain, from the elders who scoff at the idea of women having any success all the way down to the young boys. Only one, Kishan, seems even human by the film's end, and even he is underdeveloped. The cruelty goes on unabated. And yet—who knows? Abusive monsters exist everywhere; being raised a culture deeply steeped in misogyny makes those behaviors acceptable, even marks of masculinity. Still, one has to wonder if no good man can be found.