Monday, May 29, 2023

Bollywood Has A Lot To Learn From South Korean Film Industry

Bollywood Has A Lot To Learn From South Korean Film Industry

The stories and characters of South Korean films weave in indigenous surroundings and experiences, which have an imprint of reality. In contrast, Bollywood has pushed various aspects of Indian life out of its films

The crisis of Bollywood is equally visible both inside and outside the country. In May this year, India participated as the ‘Country of Honour’ at the Cannes festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Pictures of the official representatives from the country kept flooding the media. Actress Deepika Padukone’s glamorous representation of Indian cinema raised eyebrows too.

Six Indian films were also screened at the festival, but not a single Hindi film could make it to the main competition. Rubbing salt into the wounds was the fact that the films of a small country like South Korea were not only in direct competition but also made a strong presence by winning two awards, including the Best Director award for Park Chan-wook. His film Decision to Leave is a detective romance woven around the murder of a man and his wife's suspicions.

The argument that Bollywood lags behind because only realistic films get a place in film festivals is absurd. It can also be said that Hindi cinema does not need applause in any foreign festival, but when it is not getting applause from the indigenous audience and Bollywood is drowning in the tsunami of South Korean films, serials and pop music, it is bound to raise questions.

When it comes to international credibility and global reach, it is meaningless to raise questions about the importance of the events such as the Cannes film festival. Even a Hollywood legend like Tom Cruise needs to go to Cannes to promote his much-talked-about film, Top Gun: Maverick. In fact, the signs of distress in Bollywood are so clear that they cannot be ignored. There are many indigenous and foreign reasons at their root.

When a cinematic culture establishes or loses its identity at a particular point in time, it has full context of social, cultural and political factors which play an important role. The dream story of Bollywood took off in the nineties with the winds of economic liberalisation blowing across the country. It paved the way for a new economic environment, the influx of foreign companies, new jobs, and new opportunities to cross the country's borders.

A new cultural category of a global 'Indian' outside the geographical realm was born in this period, in which the gleaming Bollywood found its audience by setting aside ‘poor India’. That story has probably now come to a point where Hindi cinema has no choice but to return home and win the hearts of the desi audience.

Whether it is the strong acceptance of South Indian cinema's vernacular tales or the global success of South Korean films like Parasite, the one thing that all these factors have in common is that these stories are woven around local life and experiences, which do not lag behind even in providing romance and adventure on screen. At present, 'Hallyuwood' or the wave of South Korean films is the buzzword, but behind its success are tremendous ups and downs in the country that has given its cinema a new political and social context. There have been many changes within the country that have helped Korean cinema reach its current height of popularity.

The South Korean industry, which serves diverse, entertaining and artistic films, picked up momentum in the nineties when Bollywood began its romance with the diaspora. A significant period of change in the Korean film industry began in July 1987, when an agreement allowed Hollywood films to be distributed in South Korea.

Steps like removing the quota system for imported films and allowing any company to engage in film production without depositing any money opened a new path. The import of Hollywood films initially brought in a lot of moolah but gradually it started declining. Film companies were allowed to import films without any quota, but there was also a rule to produce at least one indigenous film annually.

So some companies started focusing on making films within the country. In 1984, there were 20 film production companies in South Korea, which increased to 121 in 1991. Also, the quota for the screening of Korean films in theatres above 100 days a year was fixed.

It was during this period that young directors from the world of art and video ventured into movies and filled the film industry with new perspectives, stories and energy. Between 1988 and 1997, names of new filmmakers emerged who laid emphasis on realism and serious dialogue in films. It led to what is known as the Korean New-Wave Cinema.

Directors Jang Sun-woo and Lee Myung-se are some of the prominent names, who considered it necessary to link filmmaking to socio-political situations and issues of common life. New-wave films focused on social themes such as political repression, urban and labour life, and student movements in South Korea. Films such as Rooster (1990) and The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) explored the country's largest city, Seoul, through stories of people struggling with hollow relationships, loneliness, and mental problems.

The films of that era also depict the political history of Korea and the social status of women. The Korean new-wave cinema had a far-reaching impact on the domestic film industry. It gave directors a chance to develop their own unique style and new talent continued to reach the audience. Overall, the period is considered important in the expansion of the industry, although it was not easy for the local films to reach the theatres. Foreign films still dominated the box office but the screen quota for indigenous films meant that Korean films continued to thrive under the shadow of foreign films.

In the 1980s, indigenous films continued to be made through private investment meaning that companies had no institutional means of raising capital for movie production. This changed in 1993 when the government moved the film industry out of the service sector and made it a part of the manufacturing sector, making it possible for film companies to take loans from banks. Simultaneously, directors also began raising money from large corporate companies that already had video divisions. These include Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai.

For example, between 1992 and 1996, Samsung was involved in some form or the other in the production of at least 20 films. When films started getting corporate support, the era of competition in the film market also started. The year 1996 was particularly decisive in this regard as it was the year when censorship was abolished, which was directly related to the rise of new and sharp voices in cinema who were later promoted at international film festivals.

The foundation for the Busan Film Festival was also laid in the same year, which proved to be instrumental in finding international markets for the film and media industries. It began with the international distribution of pop and drama series of Korean music, which made room for the gradually growing homegrown film industry.

The South Korean film industry has had films of every genre to offer to the world - be it Bollywood-style romance, science-fiction and horror, or realistic entertainment. The stories and characters of the films weave in the indigenous surroundings and experiences, which have an imprint of reality. In contrast, Bollywood, by pushing out various aspects of Indian life from its films, created a world in which nothing but urban and global-looking characters had room.

At the root of South Korean cinema's international popularity are the massive domestic industry and its audience, while Bollywood films are increasingly losing the domestic audience. There is a difference between the conditions of Hallyuwood and Bollywood today, but many similarities will also be found. For example, in 2010, with Dibakar Banerjee's Love, Sex and Dhokha, a new type of independent and realistic cinema was born in India, which is called multiplex cinema. Young directors like Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap, Ritesh Batra, and Neeraj Ghaywan started the process of bringing desi life on screen.

Such films have had frequent access to international festivals, but the number of such films in India is still less than in South Korea. The reason for this will have to be seen in the government's attitude as well as in the film industry's own methodology, and what it does to find and nurture new talent. The nepotism debate has also played a major role in the rejection of film star kids' films in Bollywood. The reality is also that apart from film families, only a few new faces are able to step into the industry.

Talking about the immense success of the South Korean web series Squid Game, series director Hwang Dong-hyuk said in an interview that South Korean society is sensitive to the changes taking place in the country and the world, and Korean content can absorb the changes happening very rapidly. Now, looking at Bollywood from this point of view, it is not difficult to see why many of its big-ticket films flopped recently. There was hardly a single story that did not try to succeed by riding on the shoulders of the power of stars or nostalgia rather than content.

During the Covid era, the audience has seen so many films and series coming from all over the world that Bollywood will have to think beyond glamour and romance to get the audiences back to spending on movie tickets.

Swati Bakshi is doing research on Hindi cinema at the University of Westminster, London, and writes on contemporary issues