The Smell Of India Wafting From Korean Film

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece Parasite that recently won four Oscars and the Palme D’Or in Cannes last year playing in theatres in Delhi, offers multiple layers of meaning — the predominant of course being class.

Quite like India, class in South Korea determines where one lives, works, has access to education or not, or is treated at the very basic level as a human being or is invisible. One could very well be watching a slice of Indian life, as the film captures a world so like our own.

A well-heeled family relies, to get its work done, on a battery of what we term ‘domestic helps’ or ‘parasites’. Yet who is the parasite? The family that is dependent to the extent that neither the couple nor the two children can take on any of their academic, creative or mundane chores or the ‘helps’ who are caught in the dead-end job just to keep body and soul together?

Interestingly, the film also uses very subtle metaphors – ‘smell’ being one. The stiff upper lip employer feels irritated when a member of his staff ‘crosses the line’, not physically but through his ‘smell’. He finds his driver’s distinct working class ‘smell’ or body odour repugnant and tells his wife quite nonchalantly that though he is not intrusive, his ‘smell’ is.

Set in a different era, Manto’s short story ‘Bu’ (Smell or Odour), the protagonist is drawn to a sex worker because of her ‘smell’, and finds no comfort in the arms of the beautiful woman he has married. The Mahabharata’s Satyavati is called Matsyagandha or ‘she who smells of fish’. Lines are crossed and boundaries of class melt when despite the ‘smell’ or perhaps on account of the same, the woman find love and companionship.

The popular Kishore Kumar song ‘Khoon Pasine Ki Jo Milegi To Khayenge’ filmed on Amitabh Bachchan from the film Khoon Pasina, is about earning your bread from the sweat of your brow. However, as the Korean film Parasite shows, it might not allow you access to a society where the rules for entry are timeless – wealth, power, looks, and yes, even smell.

(The writer is teacher based in New Delhi and the views are personal)

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