No, this article is not about how we should be making movies that match the quality of South Korean ones.
Well, in one way it is. But that’s just one aspect of a bigger picture. A picture of a future that’s within our grasp. A future that your children will be able to experience.
I was inspired to write this article on 9th February 2020. I didn’t know it then, of course. It’s taken me more than seven months to understand what I wanted to say.
But then again, you could say this article is about 25 years in the making.
I was sitting in a bar near my apartment in Canada, strategically drinking a tall glass of orange juice that would need to last me 3 hours. It was almost 11 PM on a Sunday, 9th February 2020.
I was the only one interested in the giant screen above me. There was a band playing in the corner, so the television was muted. I had to rely on the closed captioning at the bottom of the screen, always delayed by a few seconds.
Which is why I vividly remember reading the lips of Jane Fonda as she uttered that single word I’d been hoping to hear all night. I pumped my fist in the air and then broke into applause as the camera cut to the winners in the audience.
I’d just witnessed history in the making.
The first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar in its illustrious, 92-year history.
One of the best movies I’d ever seen had been bestowed the recognition it richly deserved. Parasite had won.
Once the euphoria subsided, once I finished reading gushing opinion pieces about the Oscars monumental decision, the idea began to grow in my mind.
Would we ever see a Malayalam movie win the Best Picture Oscar?
I know this might sound chuckle-worthy for many of us. It’s like when we tell the neighbourhood kid who is playing cricket that he’ll be the next Sachin Tendulkar. It’s meant to be a flattering comment, with a subtext completely different from the literal meaning of the words. We don’t really mean the kid will be the greatest in the world. We just think he’s got some skill in batting.
But the more I thought about it, the more valid the question seemed. Why can’t a Malayalam movie win the Best Picture Oscar?
In fact, right now we have a better chance than ever for that happening. After all, Parasite paved the way, establishing precedent and finally throwing open the doors to movies that deserve the highest honour but have often been overlooked because of one-inch tall subtitles.
I was about to forget my little thought experiment when a journalism project ended up giving me the answers I was looking for.
I was interviewing the President of my college’s Korean Cultural Club. It was supposed to be a routine interview about the club’s activities, but something she said piqued my interest.
“We are in the midst of the Hallyu Wave, so that’s really exciting for us!”
For a second I didn’t understand. And then it was as though I got all the answers I’d been looking for.
Hallyu Wave, translated as Korean Wave, refers to the increase in the global popularity of South Korean pop culture. It’s a phenomenon that’s been set in motion since 1995 or so, but when Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar, the world witnessed its peak.
Hallyu Wave is not just about South Korean movies. It’s about all the different ways in which the world has been increasingly consuming South Korean pop culture for the last quarter of a century. Apart from critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies, South Korea also produces immensely popular television shows and pop music, referred to as “K-Dramas” and “K-Pop” respectively.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Korean cuisine and online games are also part of the Hallyu Wave. It’s a package deal. When people around the world watch K-pop music videos and K-Dramas, they end up being influenced by the fashion, style, and culture that they see on screen.
This is not a unique concept, of course. The United States has been doing this for about a century now. That’s why nomads in the Middle East and North Africa knew about cowboys and John Wayne back in the 50s and 60s. That’s how New York and Los Angeles became world-famous, iconic cities. Sure, the United States became a global superpower thanks to its economy and military. But a lot of its influence was due to its soft power. Sometimes motion pictures convert hearts and minds faster than moving bullets.
But there is something unique about how South Korea ascended in terms of soft power. When you see Parasite director Bong Joon-ho deliver a beautiful acceptance speech to a viewing audience of a billion people, you might assume that he reached there solely through his artistic skill. However, while the South Korean director is certainly one of the best of all time, his actions behind the camera alone didn’t get the job done.
There was an entire game plan behind it.
A game plan that we Malayalis can adopt, modify, and execute as well.
The Hallyu Wave was orchestrated, at least in part, by the South Korean government. Not last year, or back in 2010. Not simply to win an Oscar or allow girls to faint at the sight of BTS. They did it out of necessity, and a sense of ambition.
Back in 1995, South Korea’s film industry was in poor shape. Hollywood movies dominated a whopping 80 percent of the domestic box office, with local movies accounting for just 15.9 percent. A report was submitted to the South Korean President, mentioning how the movie Jurassic Park made as much money as the foreign sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. Those cars were the pride of the nation, and this comparison reminded both the government and the general public about the power of exporting culture.
South Korea’s Ministry of Culture promptly established a cultural industry bureau to boost film production. Investors were encouraged to pour money into movies and television.
Over the next few years, future concrete steps were taken. Such as the establishment of 300 cultural industry departments in colleges and universities throughout South Korea. This was done in order to compete with pop culture imports from Japan such as movies, anime, and manga.
It’s fascinating to read the detailed history of Hallyu Wave. It makes you question everything you thought about art and culture. At least it did for me.
For the longest time, I’d thought that art was like the plant that grew in the wild, born out of a need for creative expression. I assumed that if you randomly chose a hundred kids in Kerala, at least a few of them would have the talent and passion required to make movies, sing songs, or write stories.
But now I realise that’s only half the truth.
Yes, creativity and talent are randomly bestowed on different people all around us. But through the actions of society at large, we can either squash or nurture it. In other words, art is not always that plant that grows despite adverse conditions. We see expressions of art that have survived in such an environment and forget to think about the countless others that have died.
If there’s anything the Hallyu Wave has taught me, it’s that art is not guaranteed. It is not immune to laws or cultural norms.
Today Malayalam movies, T.V shows, and music does not exist as a natural extension of individual and collective creativity. Instead, it is the result of several factors, such as infrastructure, economics, societal norms, and pop culture ideas. Here’s a random example that brings together all these elements. We don’t create a movie like Avatar because we don’t have the filmmaking capabilities or financing required, nor the kind of audiences that would gravitate towards a fantasy world of blue-coloured aliens engaging in battle against a fascist military. That’s not an insult. It’s just the product of what we can do, what we want to do, and what we are allowed to do.
So what if we could change the system? By using the same playbook that the South Korean government authored over the past 25 years?
Here’s the good news. Something similar has been done before in Kerala. You might know it by the phrase “Kerala Model.”
The “Kerala Model” refers to a model of development based on practices adopted by the state. High level of education, superior quality of healthcare, high life expectancy, low infant mortality and low birth rate are just some of the characteristics of this model.
This isn’t the result of nutrients in the soil or the quality of water we drink in Kerala. This model of development did not just fall into place by accident. It was orchestrated by, among other entities, the state government over many decades. The revolutionary Land Reforms Ordinance by EMS Namboothiripad’s government is just one example of how Malayalis’ quality of life was shaped. We didn’t become the most literate state in India because everyone really wanted to read Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi. It was a concerted effort, undertaken by the government as well as various social welfare organizations. We shaped our future through our decisions.
I think it’s time we imagined a new “Kerala Model”, one that addressed the problems of the future, rather than celebrate the successes of the past.
We need to make concrete investment in entertainment, not because it’ll be fun to hear Christopher Nolan praise Anjali Menon’s next movie, but because it can provide us with much needed financial, social, and political growth.
Let’s consider the example of Malayalam cinema, only because that’s the one element of Malayalam entertainment that I’m familiar with. But remember, as the Hallyu Wave showed us, exporting culture doesn’t have to happen in a singular medium. Malayalam music, Malayali cuisine and fashion and Malayalam T.V. shows (if we ever get around to making them) can all follow the same blueprint.
Even though Malayalam cinema is currently being lauded for its realistic movies that are story-driven and well made, the industry would hugely benefit from greater government support. Be it in terms of expanding filmmaking infrastructure, opening up new institutions to train the next generation of creators, or providing funding for the preservation and promotion of pop culture.
We don’t need to be surrounded by engineering students who dream of making movies and instead settle for YouTube short films that hardly get any views. We don’t need to continue the pipeline of working-class individuals who compete in overcrowded colleges for too few job placements and then ultimately scrap enough resources to fly out of the country and cobble together a living elsewhere.
Instead, we can make art great again. Or more accurately, finally. It might seem like an impossible task, but when a new film school opens up in your district, or you are able to get a scholarship to that creative writing program in the state and don’t have to travel to Delhi or Mumbai, your parents will be more amenable to the idea. Sure, it won’t happen overnight.
But waves never happen overnight. They take a decade or two to gain strength. But when they finally do, the world will feel the effect of it.
So no, if the Kerala government allocates greater funding for the promotion of art and culture in the next budget, we won’t see Alphonse Puthren deliver an acceptance speech in Los Angeles in two years time. But we will see changes.
Changes such as the fact that cinema theatres will be offered subsidies and other assistance to weather the COVID situation. Students all over Kerala will fill up seats in arts colleges that are established by the government and have tie-ups with the film industry. As they start to graduate, and Malayalam cinema improves its reputation, new startups will emerge. New streaming services, new production companies that specialize in packaging Malayalam movies for a pan-Indian audience.
Think of your son working as one of the most sought after translators for Malayalam. No, that is not code for a person who sits in a dingy cubicle and creates subtitles for a Malayalam movie. Instead, he’ll be meeting with directors and scriptwriters, discussing ways to convert themes, dialogues, and references in movies for audiences in different states of India.
Do you think people in Manipur won’t watch Malayalam movies? They certainly watched South Korean ones starting in the early 2000s. Yes, it was partly due to political reasons as well, since separatists in the state decided to ban Bollywood movies.
But that’s just it. Politics is a part of pop culture. It has always been that way, and the sooner we capitalize on it, the better off we’ll be. Several people I’ve met in Canada have mentioned how they’ve heard great things about Malayalam cinema. That’s not just an opportunity for us to show them what puttu and pazam (rice cake and banana) looks like on screen. It’s the ultimate exercise in PR.
And we need PR. Especially in a political climate where keyboard warriors sitting in IT cells can paint Kerala as fields drenched with blood after a few political killings. We need our movies to tell our stories, not just for ourselves, but for others as well. So that they see us as human beings and not ghostly caricatures. Or as stereotypes. Movies can help us show that Malayalis are not people with coconut oil in their hair and purveyors of sleazy “Mallu porn”, dodging sickle wielding political fanatics every day as we make our way to the kallu shops to have Toddy and some spicy beef derived from a cow we indiscriminately slaughtered the day before.
At a time when certain political ideologies are chomping at our borders, eager to get in and poison our minds and turn us against each other, exporting culture is a brilliant antidote. It not only informs Indians and the world about who we are, it makes us choose who we want to be. Through the stories, we tell we chisel our identity.
So yes, I do believe a Malayalam movie can win Best Picture Oscar one day. But when that day comes, don’t forget what you should be cheering for. Not the 2-hour long movie that won the award, but the state that chartered a bold future and allowed millions of people to learn in new educational institutions, work in new careers, watch new stories and hear new voices as their quality of life rose alongside the GDP and total exports while welcoming visitors from all over the world eager to see the sights they’d only glimpsed through their digital screens until then.
It’s time for a Kerala Tharangam, don’t you agree?
Check out Marwan Razzaq’s new novel, a fast-paced crime thriller called “The Man Who Found His Shadow”, now available on Amazon!