Leena Yadav's "Parched" tells the revealing buoyant story of four women from a village in western India: (from L-R, T-B) Radhika Apte's Lajjo, Lehar Khan's Janaki. Tannishtha Chatterjee's Rani and Surveen Chawla's Bijli

Womanhood, desire and pain. Is there a more complex intertwining of human experience?

Narratives at this intersection are manifold, but the vast majority—especially from places with complicated social hierarchies, such as India—go untold. With nuance and empathy, and based on extensive research and conversations with women from villages, Indian director Leena Yadav weaves a few humorous, heartbreaking and bewitching tales into an insightful, entertaining, award-winning film, Parched.

The film follows three women as they gradually come to realize how the ancient and thorny vines of patriarchy have mangled their desires and individualities. Rani, married at 13 and widowed shortly after, is about to get her 16-year-old ingrate son married, but financial debts and personal reservations threaten to further bind her to her modest hut and a lifetime of invisibility. Her close friend Lajjo, who is constantly beaten by her alcoholic husband and who has internalized the shame of being ‘barren,’ is, despite her jovial spirit, withering from desensitization. And Bijli, Rani’s childhood friend who is outwardly all electricity as a dancer with a moving troupe, deals with the prospect of being ostracized by men who deem her oomph fading. Parched shows these women becoming courageous and moving past their self-definitions. With several well-staged, multi-textured and yes, colorful (stereotype as truth) vignettes, Yadav invites us to gracefully listen to their conversations.

At the same time, Parched treats us to an examination of the perils of masculinity; a rich linguistic vista consisting of an invented dialect (a cross between Hindi and Kachchhi), with Punjabi and Haryanvi discreetly thrown in; and a production design that artfully builds upon an actual village and sparkles with a goddess-like vehicle (pictured above) that becomes the emblem of these women’s freedom. Problematically for India’s conservative censor board, the film also offers tasteful, moving depictions of variegated sexuality scathed by pain, denial and loneliness. As a long-time admirer of Indian “parallel” (i.e. indie, not Bollywood) cinema, I found that Parched imbued its careful research with deft narrative spin, and left the fates of its memorable protagonists precariously and bravely open-ended.

I chatted about all this and more with Yadav in a hour-long conversation, touching on her international collaboration with DP Russell Carpenter (Titanic), editor Kevin Tent (Nebraska) and sound designer Paul N.J. Ottoson (Zero Dark Thirty), the global reach of her voice, and the unique challenges of being an independent female filmmaker from India.

Director Leena Yadav on the set of "Parched"

Director Leena Yadav on the set of Parched

Ritesh Mehta, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Given your history as a director working in commercial TV houses in India, as well as the commercial blockbuster films you’ve made with big-name stars, how did Parched arise from your prior work?

Leena Yadav (LY):  Firstly, I don’t know any categories of films. I started off as an editor in advertising. I got tired of advertising really fast and I wanted to do narrative. All my learning about direction actually came from being an editor. Editing, for me, is literally rewriting the material. You suddenly see the flaws in performance, in the way it was shot. While I was editing, somebody offered me to direct something. I said, “Are you crazy? I don’t know anything about direction.” That’s how I started as a director.

Then I wrote my first film, Shabd [2005], and I took it to a producer. He suggested casting mainstream actors. I had thought it was going to be a small independent film and I wondered if this subject would translate to a mass audience. Actors [such as Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan] signed on because they also thought the material was different. Somewhere we went wrong while we were marketing the film. They put it out there as a love story and did not prepare the audience for the kind of complex story they were going to watch. There was a big disconnect. Thereon I made Teen Patti [2010], which was a very complex story about greed, but it was marketed as a heist film. Thus I just had the urge to make this film that had no expectations; that was just true to what it was.

MM: Can you talk about the inspiration behind Parched?

LY: The film started off as, “Let’s just shoot something in my apartment.” Meanwhile, Tannishtha Chatterjee [who plays Rani] was shooting two films in Gujarat in India, where Parched was set. She trained with the local women in the villages for body language.

They started asking her questions, like “One month—how are you going to survive?” Chatterjee asked, “What do you mean?” They said, “You don’t have your husband here. What are going to do for sex?” I thought, “Their conversations are so much more candid. We [in cities] don’t talk about sex at all.” So I said, “Let’s blast everyone’s brains. People have seen Sex and the City. Let’s show them ‘Sex in the Village.’ Let’s have these women actually talk about sex.” That’s how we started.

MM: Can you talk about the extensive process of researching your characters by speaking to actual women in villages in Gujarat very similar to the village you portray in the film?

LY: When I started writing it, some more serious tones started coming in. The research process involving talking to various different women from the villages never ended—until I shot the film.

I realized that all the themes of the film were happening right around me; it’s the same situation in Bombay [as in Gujarat]. I sent my script out to filmmaker friends all over the world. They didn’t even write back feedback; they just wrote back more stories. I have had this reaction from across the world: When people first start watching the film, they say, “Exotic India.” Then they say, “Oh my god, this is happening in India still.” And slowly by the end of the film, it sneaks in, “It’s happening right here.” I had the same reaction even in a city like Stockholm. Sweden is supposed to be the most gender-equal country in the world. But I had women come up and tell me, “This is my sister’s story; this is my mother’s story.” The process never ended. I started writing, and more material came in. I was feeding off life continuously and bringing it into the script.

MM: This feeds into my next question. Can you talk about the writing process? Do you use the three-act structure? Do you think of story structure first or do you think of characters?

LY: Honestly, I don’t even know what the three-act structure is. I am a very instinctive writer. I have no sense of grammar when I write. I have a feeling that something needs to happen (at a particular moment), that we need more drama now. But my ideas definitely start off with characters. There is something about their journeys that gets defined in my head. So, it’s the central theme first, then the characters, and then slowly I flesh out the plot. I just throw my characters into situations and I know drama will happen. I have fun with them. It becomes a game. I don’t ever get overwhelmed with the material. I improvise even as I am shooting.

MM: How do you work with actors?

LY: The way I write is the way I work with my actors as well. I do a lot of prep work before I go to set.  I first do a reading with everybody. Then I have individual workshops with each actor, one on one. What I always want to see is, does the actor play the character with judgment? Like, are they being judgmental? So if I am playing an asshole and in my head I am also thinking “asshole,” I will play the character with judgment. But I have to become him. To become him, I have to be empathetic with something about him. So that’s the chord I try to find with the actor and the character. Once we make the connection, I start throwing the cast in pairs. Then I come back to do a reading with everybody. Suddenly, you see things have come much more to life. On set [then] they are already the character. I’m just highlighting or fine-tuning.

MM: You had some prominent financiers, such as Bollywood star and director Ajay Devgn who gave you the initial seed money. But I also read that that was not your initial plan to fund. Can you talk about the ideal financing situation for this kind of film? 

LY: It’s bad. The financing situation is bleak, bad and nonexistent. When we set out to make this film, Ajay, who is very close to my husband Aseem Bajaj [a cinematographer], said, “Are you people mad? Who is going to give you money to make this kind of film?” Surely enough, nobody wanted to touch this film. People would ask, “What is this subject matter? It’s controversial. You don’t have a hero. What is this film about? Women?” I remember a filmmaker friend of mine saw the film and came out and said, “Why did you need to make this film? People make independent films to be able to work with stars. You have worked with the biggest stars—like Amitabh Bachchan—why did you have to do this?”

That’s the culture that we come from. I had not even thought about the questions that started to get thrown at me. Finally, though, there were two guys not connected to the film industry. They saw the potential. They saw that we were trying to put the film on a more international platform. They came on board. Aseem and I invested all our life savings into this film. My friends put some of their money into the film. Recently, we were joking that we’ve never felt so rich and so poor at the same time. I am very poor right now, but I am flying business class and being treated like a queen. Staying in great hotels, meeting great filmmakers. I have never felt higher than this. Lots of people thought we were crazy to put everything at stake. But once in your life, you have to do something you believe in.

MM: Readers might not know about the extremely strict and often frustrating censorship process by India’s Central Board of Film Certification. Could you talk a bit about the challenges you anticipate for this film, given its refreshingly frank language and rare depiction of sexuality and nudity?

LY: We haven’t yet sent it to the censor. We are trying to figure out who the distributor will be [for a potential July or August release date in India]. The censors will definitely have a problem with nudity. There is no way they will let that pass. But I won’t take out any scenes. If you have a problem looking at breasts, I’ll blur them. There is so much else being said in those scenes. In fact, everyone who has seen the film has said, “We don’t even notice the nudity.” But the censor board will notice it since they have never seen it.

They will also have a problem with the cussing, especially in the scene in which Bijli wonders why men get to say “sister-fucker” and “motherfucker” and women don’t get to say “son-fucker” and “brother-fucker.” I will fight for that scene because it has a context. In fact, a lot of the Indian filmmakers at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles said that, considering their recent experiences, the Censor Board should pass that scene. But you can never say for sure.

MM: Were there any films that inspired you for Parched?

LY: That’s the thing with visual language. I don’t reference anything, even in my head, because every time I see it in my head, I see it very differently than anything I’ve seen before.

MM: Can you talk about working with your DP, Russell Carpenter?

LY: The only thing I told Russell is that I want the film to be beautiful. I wanted an outside eye because I think there is so much beauty in our villages that we have forgotten to see. I have observed that when people who are not used to the streets of India come and take photographs, they notice such amazing things, things we take for granted. I like an eye coming and seeing things anew. That’s why Russell flew down literally 10 days before the shoot. I didn’t want him to get too familiar. I just wanted this to be a beautiful film. The main thing is, I want to celebrate these women. He just took it upwards from there. I tell him that he painted the film with light and shade.

MM: Indeed. My favorites scenes from a cinematographic perspective were those inside the huts.

LY: We were shooting in Rani’s hut for 15-20 days, out of 38 production days. Russell is a very tall guy [laughs]. On our first day, the hut was full with just him, me, the 1st AD and the focus puller. He told me, “Leena, in every scene, I will make this hut look different. And I will use light differently every time.” I am amazed that it is true.

My previous films were shot by my husband. This time, since we were taking on production, one of us needed to produce full time. So Aseem took on that role and said, “I am going to get you someone whom I admire and who can be a master class for you.” We had, luckily, met Russell a couple of years back. We sent him the script. He reacted so beautifully to it. He was the first to come on board.

MM: How amenable was Russell to working outside of an American setting?

LY: For him, it must have been an adventure. He had been to India once before and I think he was fascinated. It was amazing how he came all alone and how he blended. It must have been a huge shift for him to suddenly be with this crowd of Indians. I remember I used to travel with Russell everyday in the car and he used to mug up [study] names. He made sure he knew everybody on set by name. I learned so much from him. The rest of the camera crew was Indian. Ideally a cameraman will come with his 1st AC. But we could not afford that.

MM: What is the biggest difference in how camera crews are run between the U.S. and India?

LY: We are very instinctive in India. I remember one day Russell looked at a scene and said that it would be so nice if this were covered by a skimmer, which is a cloth put up on poles that requires a huge amount of structuring to be done. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity before Russell. He said, “What’s going on?” Before we knew it, the skimmer was put up. He said that such a thing would require one week of planning in the U.S. [laughs]. The crew is very instinctive and on the go.

Tannishtha Chatterjee's Rani and Radhika Apte's Lajjo in an early scene in "Parched"

Tannishtha Chatterjee’s Rani and Radhika Apte’s Lajjo in an early scene in Parched

MM: I was wondering if there was a difference in sensibility—cultural or otherwise—in working with an international crew. I love editor Kevin Tent’s work in Nebraska. Could you talk about Kevin as an editor in this regard?

LY: Kevin is a very special human being and an amazing editor. We used to constantly have conversations about letting go. When we came to Kevin, we had a three-hour cut. We’ve lost one hour five minutes due to him. He would bring up a scene and the first thing I would say is, “Are you going to cut it?” He would say, “I want to talk to you about it.” By the end of that conversation, either I would say, “Let’s cut it out,” or he would say, “Oh that’s why you need it. But it’s not coming across right now. So we need to make sure it is.”

Obviously there were some cultural differences. But he was so open. After the first couple weeks of editing, I saw him bring back things that I had removed from the three-hour cut. That was the only cut that was subtitled; the rushes weren’t. And he was working with an English script. Yet he brought back lines that were bang on. He said, “After a while, the language stopped mattering to me. I can understand.” He was so emotionally tuned into the characters. That’s a big lesson for me. He brought back expressions that I would have probably cut more sharply. I realized when you are not from the culture, you are so much more observant. We see it as excess. Working with Russell, Kevin and [sound designer] Paul N.J. Ottoson, I realized I can make a film anywhere in the world.

MM: My favorite scene is the one between Rani and Lajjo, after Lajjo has been beaten by her husband, again. I love how you flit between friendship and eroticism, loneliness and heartbreak. Can you talk more about how that scene came about?

LY: It is my favorite scene as well. I feel as a director, I achieved something special there. That scene to me is about too many things. One of the themes I want to explore as a filmmaker is touch. I think we’re becoming so isolated that we’re forgetting to touch each other. I can sometimes look at people and say, “Shit, they need to be touched.” I can see their skin shrivel up in the sadness of not being touched.

The scene came about after I met a widow during the research process who said she had not been touched in 17 years.  I wanted to do a scene in which the two women have a conversation through only touch. They don’t talk but they actually share so much. That scene had a script. Radhika Apte’s character, Lajjo, has been beaten so much that she’s actually lost sensation. For her, touch, if anything, means violence. So either it will make her cringe or she won’t feel anything. Then there is Tannishtha’s character, Rani, who has not been touched, so she is hypersensitive about everything. So she’s thinking, “It’s so sexual to be touched like this,” until the point when her pain comes out. In that scene, they are sisters, they are friends, they are lovers, and the scene ends them being almost like mother-daughter.

MM: A lot of attention has, rightfully, been paid to the feminist overtones of the film. However, there is also a lot of nuanced and telling depiction of masculinity. On the one hand, there are the abusive and regressive characters, Manoj and Gulab. On the other side of the spectrum, you give us a wonderful assortment of smaller characters who are relatively more progressive: Chandan Anand’s Rajesh, Adil Hussain’s mystic lover, Sumeet Vyas’ Kishan and Chetan Sharma’s Heera. And I saw a potential queer reading of Rajesh. How would you describe masculinity in your film?

LY: When I was writing the film, it was very painful to create a Gulab or a Manoj. But I tried to write them with empathy. I saw them and wrote them as victims. I think that thread brought them out more realistically. I never wanted this film to just be restricted to a gender discussion. It’s not a blame game. And it’s never men versus women. That will never solve anything. I thus had to have the whole spectrum of male characters.

I am also very fond of Rajesh’s character. He is between the Heeras and Kishans on the one side and Gulabs and Manojes on the other. He is trying to be on the former side, but he is a victim of circumstance. In his love for Bijli—and he does love her—he wants to save her and take her to a better place, but he does not know better. For him the solution is to become her manager. He does not know life outside the circus. But by now, Bijli wants out of there. I think theirs is a circumstantially sad love story. I find your queer reading very interesting because actually a lot of these men—even Gulab—end up with very confused sexualities. That’s where the violence comes from as well.

As a filmmaker, however, I am not making judgments or casting blame. I am just making observations. MM

Parched opened in theaters on June 17, 2016, courtesy of Wolfe Releasing. All images courtesy of Wolfe Releasing.