By Sayantan Mondal Jan. 30, 2020
Oscar-winning South Korean phenomenon Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, walks on a similar path as several Bollywood plots, focusing on ugly societal norms, class divide, and striking inequality. The only difference — our love for a sprinkling of masala.
I remember seeing Pushpaka Vimana (1987) during one of my countless trips to my maternal home. The movie sparked intrigue for a number of unknown reasons. Was it the fluidity of plot — which follows a jobless graduate (Kamal Haasan) as he kidnaps a millionaire, takes over his identity, and gets targeted by assassins — or was it the absurdity of its premise that kept me hooked? I couldn’t tell.Pushpaka Vimana,which had no dialogue, was a massive success, which many consider to be one of Kamal Haasan’s finest films. A satire and black comedy, it was a genre-defying attempt by director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. But what I saw as a kid was starkly different from what the film actually was. When I was younger, I had failed to gauge the suffering of Kamal Haasan’s character, to look beyond the comic elements and grasp the underlying class divide and inequality the film so expertly portrays. The film narrated the story of an educated man whose only crime was his poverty, not the identity that he stole. How could you blame him?
Oscar-winning South Korean phenomenon Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho (which is on a rampage, winning awards and acclaim) walks on a similar path, focusing on ugly societal norms, class divide, and striking inequality. In it, we see a near-destitute Kim family winning a golden ticket out of their misery when they start working for the rich Park family. All they need to do is fake their identities and pretend to be experts in diverse fields such as tutoring, housekeeping, art therapy, and driving. Sound familiar? While Parasite is indeed an example of groundbreaking cinema, it turns out that a similar motif shows up in several Indian movies as well.
Take another Kamaal Haasan movie, Chachi 420 (1997), in which we see his character, a dance instructor, invade his father-in-law’s house pretending to be a governess, so he can look after his own daughter from whom he has been separated. Much like the Kims in Parasite, he takes up a job he’s not qualified for. Different needs, but same modus operandi.
Much like the Kims in Parasite, Kamal Hassan’s character, a dance instructor, invade his father-in-law’s house pretending to be a governess, so he can look after his own daughter from whom he has been separated in Chachi 420. Raaj Kamal Films International
Much like the Kims in Parasite, Kamal Hassan’s character, a dance instructor, invade his father-in-law’s house pretending to be a governess, so he can look after his own daughter from whom he has been separated in Chachi 420.
Raaj Kamal Films International
Indian cinema and mainly Bollywood have always dabbled in the politics of identity and inequality, albeit in a masalafied manner. While Parasite has become a darling of the critics, Bollywood has been doing it for a while now, if not in as sophisticated a manner. Bollywood has realised that to thrive in an insular world, the identity of a person has to be fluid. The crowd loves this, and that’s how the dynamics of the narrative work.
Maybe that’s why we root for Hrithik Roshan’s character in Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), when he replaces his boss so everyone thinks he is rich – until the truth comes out and he’s immediately pushed aside because the heroine’s mom wants her damaad to be a wealthy NRI boy, like Sundar Pichai.
Identities are at play as is societal standing, which are never compromised by our sanskari filmmakers. Still, the Bollywood rule of thumb overrides reality, and ensures that Hrithik Roshan gets the girl in the end. Would it have been different if Hrithik belonged to the same class and this was just a prank? Probably, because class erases all problems.
It’s clear that even though Bollywood has been doing this for years, what triumphs in our magic realist masalafied world, won’t hold true for the stark realism of Parasite.
A similar premise is seen in cult favourite Chupke Chupke (1975), in which Professor Parimal Tripathi (Dharmendra) gives up his identity as an academic and becomes a driver to prank his brother-in-law Raghav (Om Prakash). It is interesting to observe how class and privileged positions are put at stake for this.
This charade works really well for professor Tripathi, and his brother-in-law is scandalised when he sees his sister-in-law Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) romancing a driver. Eventually though, as societal ruin lurks on the horizon, identities are revealed and everything is forgiven. This is how things have always been. Our class identity is important for our survival and these characters intentionally or unintentionally remind us of that. But often, in these fairytales, discrimination gets sugar-coated in flimsy filmy narratives.
Occasionally, our heroes switch identities not to overcome class barriers but to exact revenge. This is best seen in Baazigar (1993). Shah Rukh Khan steals the identity of his friend to invade the life of his nemesis Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). And he does so with no conscience. When he hits roadblocks, he bumps them off, similar to how the Kims remove people from their path so they can continue to enjoy limitless privilege.
Shah Rukh Khan steals the identity of his friend to invade the life of his nemesis Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil) in Baazigar. Eros Labs
Shah Rukh Khan steals the identity of his friend to invade the life of his nemesis Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil) in Baazigar.
As Bollywood shows, faking your identity or pretending to be someone else doesn’t necessarily include uplifting your economic position. In some cases, it can be for love, in others, it can be for revenge. Take the classic Munnabhai series, for example. In the first, Sanjay Dutt pretends to be a doctor, and in the second he pretends to be a professor — love honour, vengeance, everything at stake.
Parasite works chiefly because it eschews magic realism, and wraps its narrative around the problems of Korean society. During this great pretence, the Kim family loses or discards their identity until a series of events makes them acutely aware of the reality they were trying to escape from. Bollywood narratives are, well, more accommodating. In their attempt for a better life, the Kims don’t hesitate to eliminate challenges, and while Bollywood occasionally goes down the same route, a sprinkling of masala prevents them from going completely rogue.
While Parasite among its various metaphors, mainly functions as a story of class divide, the Kims long for an identity that they can be proud of. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), we see Surinder Suri in a similar situation — he too craves an identity that will make him win the love of his life, and thus becomes Raj, the cool guy. In a similar manner, Nauker (1979), starring Sanjeev Kumar and Mehmood, has Sanjeev Kumar exchange places with his servant so he can find a wife for himself. It is a test, to seek the one, who will love him and not his wealth or position in society.
Still, it’s clear that even though Bollywood has been doing this for years, what triumphs in our magic realist masalafied world, won’t hold true for the stark realism of Parasite. Parasite strives to make us realise what’s wrong, while Bollywood provides an escape. If there were to ever be a desi remake of Parasite, we can trust that the Kims will come out victorious, maybe through a lottery ticket. It’s Bollywood, anything is possible.
Sayantan Mondal is an instructional designer and writer from Pune. When he is not busy at work, he likes to watch movies, make memes and hunt zombies. He also has a doctorate degree that he uses to ward off evil and other supernatural beings.