Domestic violence figures creep up each year in India, but not because Indian homes have suddenly become more violent. Rather, experts say, the rising numbers can be attributed to increased reporting of abuse among women as education levels and financial independence rise in the country.
As empowered Indian women increasingly speak out about domestic abuse, Parched, a new movie set in rural India, dramatizes the issue. Indian-born writer-director Leena Yadav's new movie depicts the lives of four different women—two wives, one child bride, and one prostitute—in a remote village where women are routinely treated like servants, punching bags, and second-class citizens. Each is terrorized by at least one man in her life—a pimp, a son, a husband. And yet, even as Parched gazes headlong into the lives of battered women, the screenplay brings a sense of humor to the task. The film's central characters, played by the actresses Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Surveen Chawla, and Lehar Khan, aren't so downtrodden that they don't flirt with strangers, or crack jokes about guys who are bad in bed, or learn enough to want to escape.
True to the complexities of real people, the characters in Parched aren't just victims or action heroes—they all fall somewhere in between. Earlier this week, we Skyped with Yada, whose film begins screening today at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and discussed her fierce characters, the difficulties in financing a female-driven film, and her annoyance at the label "woman director."
Tell me a little bit about how this movie started for you.
The actress who plays Rani in the film [Tannishtha Chatterjee] and I wanted to do something that really meant something to us. She started telling me about conversations that she had with women in a remote village where she was shooting a film, and we began talking about how people in villages were just so much more unguarded and truthful about basic things. From those conversations, we came to the conclusion, "Let's make Sex in the Village."
It started with this fun idea, but then we traveled in a [rural] region in India called Kutch and met some amazingly spirited and beautiful women—and the story took on more serious undertones. The most amazing thing, though, was when I came back. The truth dawned on me that the same [serious issues] were happening in Bombay.
What shared experience did you notice specifically?
This film was made from a need to create a dialogue to question conditioning—things that we have bought into, and things that we accept and probably don't admit to—especially to question why women bear with [domestic] violence.
My film is not about women versus men at all. It's about a combined problem. In the film, the character Manoj [Mahesh Balraj] is just as much a victim of society—a society where a man needs to be a certain type—as the women. For him to live with the knowledge that he is not good enough, that is where the violence [against his battered wife, played by Lajjo Apte] comes from. In my film, men are equally the victims of tradition and unquestioned norm as the women.
On one level, Parched is a Sex in the Village-style comedy, but on another level, it's a harrowing story about women who have been stripped of their rights. How did you approach balancing the horror with the comedy?
There were a few defining moments in my travels that made me realize what the film was about. I remember spending time in this village with a group of women: We were just laughing about life, and making fun of men and sex, when I noticed this woman with bruises on her face. It was disturbing me so much that at one point I asked her: "What are these bruises? Does your husband beat you up?" And she said: "Oh my God, don't get into that right now, we've been having so much fun. That's normal, it's fine." And I thought, this is life. There are so many levels at which we cover things up. When you're feeling pain, you laugh a little bit more. That's the spirit I wanted to capture.
Also, I felt that we're always seeing men talk about sex and women, but we don't explore those moments with women at all. But they exist, and they are just as funny and potent and fun and deep.
Several of the film's characters undergo a feminist awakening over the course of the film. How widespread is the feminist movement in India right now, and is it in fact seeping into rural villages like the one in Parched?
I believe individual small steps are what make up the larger movement. These individual smaller steps involve questioning the validity of accepted norms, which happens all over the world in places where women are educated and where they are not.
While traveling, I found very spirited and liberated women in villages where they don't have rights. And I can't imagine why women in a place like America would deal with this, but they do, right? Domestic violence in America is huge. That's why this is not about an economic or a geographic problem. It's about individuals and the human spirit. That is what I feel will only bring change—if individually each of us takes a step forward, men and women [alike].
As a female-centric movie that's critical of certain Indian norms, was this film difficult to finance?
It was impossible to finance, to be honest. When the film started, I was in the phase of my filmmaking career when I felt like I didn't want to make films anymore. I just felt that it was such a painful process—painful in a beautiful way, though, I wouldn't do anything else—and that I hadn't yet felt the satisfaction of having said something that I really wanted to say. My husband, who is a cinematographer, told me, "Without any boundaries, make a film that you really believe in, and I'll produce it for you." I think he made the most difficult promise of his life.
We got private investors who believed in the vision of what the film was trying to do more than the business of it. We decided to produce this film in America; some of the money came through the United Kingdom, some from India, and some from the United States. It was a very, very difficult film to finance. My husband and I invested everything we had into this film.
Has it paid off?
Absolutely. Emotionally, mentally, in every way the film justified why we're making films and [convinced us] we're doing it for the right reasons. We still have to see financially why we made it, but the other parts of it have been so fulfilling that it's completely worth it.
In the U.S., we're talking quite a bit about the difficulties that female filmmakers face right now in terms of getting films financed, produced, and released. Do female filmmakers in India face similar challenges?
When I got into this industry, I started out as an editor; I did face circumstances where people refused to work with me because I was a woman, but I absolutely ignored that whole aspect of it, and was very clear about what I needed to do and what I wanted to do. Honestly, after that, I stopped perceiving discrimination. There are very few women directors in India in comparison [to women directors in other countries] if you look at the percentages, but those percentages are changing. I'm a very optimistic person, and I know we're going to find a really good balance.
When I made my first film, I was so disturbed by being asked questions [by journalists] about being a "woman filmmaker." "As a woman, how does it feel doing this? As a woman, what do you feel...?" I began thinking that by attempting to empower you, [journalists are] actually putting you in a box. I hate the [phrase] "woman filmmaker" because we do not refer to men as "male filmmakers." You're already putting a preconceived notion into somebody's head when you use that term. If you want to achieve equal ground, it has to be a dialogue; it can never be a women-versus-men thing, so I don't like being bracketed as a woman anything. In fact, after my first film, after the interviews that I gave, I said, "Shit, I'm never going to make a woman-oriented film because that's what they want me to do."
The moment they put you in that box, they want you to tell your own stories. I directed Parched, and I'm very happy I did because it was a lesson in itself—I was rebelling so much against [women-oriented stories] because I want to tell stories about everything, that I was thinking a lot about the male-versus-female factor. So, yes, that's a complicated question.
Parched has been well received on the international film festival circuit, but how has it been received in India? Have you had a chance to screen it in villages like the one in the film?
I will definitely do a screening there, and I know I will get very mixed responses. One problem with the patriarchy is that some of its biggest supporters are women—one has to acknowledge that. So even the women whose stories I'm telling may completely go into denial about the [issues I'm raising], but I'm interested to see what's going to happen.
We haven't yet released the film in India; we are just about starting to stream for distribution here. Censorship is another issue that we need to tackle—I need to see whether I have a film left after that whole process to be able to release. Having said that, I will go to these villages to screen this film for these women—if not publicly, then privately.
Are you nervous about how those women will react?
No. I know it will come from a place of truth, and I'm ready to see however they react. After having gotten the best reaction—people saying "This is our story"—I suppose it will be sad if they say, "It's not our story."
I don't want to spoil anything, but the movie ends on a hopeful and triumphant note. How realistic is that conclusion, and how much of that is fantasy on your part?
It's not the end that really sums my characters up; it's the small questions they raise [throughout the film] about their circumstances which is for me the change. The end is a mood that I want to leave you with. The steps that my characters take in life—the minuscule steps that each of them take—that is the end that I hope for. The actual end in the film is intended just to leave you with a sense of hope, because without hope there's no life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.