Parched is about three female friends living in a rural, dusty, desert village, presumably in Rajasthan. Rani (Chatterjee), a young widow of 32 is arranging the marriage of her son Gulaab to Janaki (Khan), a beautiful 15 year old from the neighboring village. Lajjo (Apte) is a childless woman constantly taunted and beaten up by her husband Manoj (Balraj) for being barren. Bijli (Chawla) is a dancer/prostitute who with her touring troupe sets up temporary residence outside the village at regular intervals.
The film focuses on events in these 3 lives, and we gain a sense of the repressive, misogynistic society it is. The men of the village (save one) are all narrow-minded, boozing, womanizing wife-beaters. The women (and this includes our three protagonists) have lived abusive lives and are resigned to their daughters living the same way. There is one scene in which the village panchayat sends back a woman (played by Sayani Gupta) to her husband's home even when she reports that her husband keeps a mistress, and that she (the woman) is being sexually abused by the other men of the household (father/brother-in-law).
Parched has a feminist theme because the three protagonists, despite all the misogynistic brain-washing, begin to question the status quo. There is natural sympathy for them, but I, for all my trying, don't feel connected enough to feel empathetic. Chatterjee and Apte are very good actors, and their roles are decently fleshed out. Chawla has the difficult job of portraying a female wise-ass, who seems outwardly independent but is abjectly powerless. She doesn't quite succeed.
Another curious thing about this film is the juxtaposition of crude reality with somewhat fantastical scenery. On one hand, we see Manoj mercilessly batter Lajjo, and on the other there is this surreal love-scene in a golden, glow-lit cave. I imagine a cave in a remote village as being dark, uncomfortable, rife with twittering mice and bats, not quite this golden love-nest. Very unrealistic, and it does take the hard-hitting edge off of the film.
There is a natural progression to this feminist tale, but it didn't quite flow. At first we see the women subjected to patriarchal horrors. They murmur in subdued tones, mostly amongst themselves, about the injustice of it all but they don't see a way out. Towards the end of the film, there is flat out liberation, but I've missed the self-reflection which brings about the liberation. Showing the anger, the urgency, the driving need for justice (because it must be urgent and driving to bring about the liberation) is essential to connecting the cause and the action - and this is where Parched stumbles. I'm glad that Rani, Lajjo and Bijli reach the point of no return, but am a little sad that I couldn't be more involved in their journey. I so wanted to be.