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Parasites, poverty and privacy

The themes of the Oscar-winning film are all too familiar to the global South

One of the first things that strikes you about Parasite, the brilliant South Korean social satire that swept up four Academy Awards this week, is how familiar it feels to Indian viewers. Bong Joon-ho directs it like a perfectly timed high-wire act, but grounds it deeply in his understanding of the class divide.

The untouchability of class

The deep differences between the Park and the Kim family that Parasite focuses on mirrors the enormous income gap in India and, interestingly, takes the shape of what is essentially untouchability; only, it’s the untouchability of class. The wealthy Mr. Park’s one abiding fear is that his chauffeur Kim Ki-taek might “cross the line”. The line is left undefined — but it needs no definition for Indians, into whose homes chauffeurs and gardeners might enter, but might not sit on the sofa. We might foot the driver’s bill when we go out, but seldom will he share our table.

If the upper-class Indian justifies this by talking about ‘hygiene’, the young son of the Kim family has fewer inhibitions — he simply points out that all four members of the Kim family smell the same. There’s a poignant scene where Ki-taek’s daughter says this smell can never be scrubbed out because it’s the smell of the basement they live in. What’s left eloquently unsaid is that this is the distinctive odour of poverty. It sharply recalls the scenes from the Tamil play Manjal, where manual scavengers lament that the smell of sewage never leaves their skin. And it seems entirely apposite that it is the sight of Mr. Park recoiling from Geun-sae, hand covering nose, that finally pushes Ki-taek over the edge.

Bong extends the implicit untouchability of poverty with the metaphor of the toilet, that familiar forbidden ground. Two vivid scenes demonstrate how close to that reviled toilet the poor lead their lives. First, when searching desperately for an Internet signal to tap, it’s by sitting on the WC and holding phones above their heads that the Kim siblings are able to read their WhatsApp messages. Then, when their basement home gets flooded, Ki-jeong runs to slam down the lid of the WC to keep the rising sewage from spewing out, but later she’s forced to crouch on the same lid, smoking a cigarette, oblivious to the slime around her.

Secluded toilets, privacy and personal space are unaffordable luxuries for the poor. In fact, not long ago, India’s Attorney General had argued that “it’s not right to talk about the right to privacy for poor people”. Although the court ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, real life seldom offers it to people whose homes are pavements and cardboard-walled shanties.

This awareness makes the contrast between the Kims’ squalid basement and the Parks’ soaring, airy home even more stark. In one significant scene, the Kims, caught unawares by the Park family returning home early, hide under the drawing room table, unable to escape even as the Parks make love on the couch. Jammed there, they are forced to listen to an act of intimacy that mocks the lack of privacy for intimate acts in their own life. It reminds us inexorably of Indian chawls and slums — of people who must carefully time their return home to avoid interrupting others; of tiny rooms divided by saris to create the illusion of space; of couples who crowd beaches and parks desperate for solitude.

Universal theme

Parasite’s bottom-up, unromantic, searing take on poverty couldn’t have come from anywhere but the global South. But its triumph lies in how fluidly it universalises the theme, making it impossible for privileged juries to look away. The film’s fantasy and caprice give it a surreal air, but the mortifications it portrays are only too familiar not just to us, but to audiences everywhere in the developing world.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 11:24:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/parasites-poverty-and-privacy/article30803046.ece

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