Space permitting, I could have titled this ‘Five Things I Took Away From Busan’. As it stands, I can only list them, beginning with the one that caused a minor jolt to my being. For, the Busan International Film Festival, which is Asia’s biggest, rides on something we in India cannot comprehend—precision. I lost count of the number of times I was told, ‘Your pickup will be waiting here at 4.45, if you’re not here by 4.50 it will leave.’ Arre?! I caught myself thinking often, yeh kya baat hui? Making films in India has taught us to be lackadaisical about Time. The damn thing is supposed to be elastic according to our shastras, isn’t it? Delays are not just par for the course, they are a consummation of some higher purpose! If someone is bang on time, it almost makes us wonder if they don’t have anything better to do with their lives.
Anyway, having to be frighteningly punctual made me operate in a mild state of panic. Fortunately, you do get used to it. The baleful feeling diminished gradually, as the days progressed. And I slowly tuned into South Korea’s respect for other people’s time. This respect translates into the second thing I could not ignore…politeness.
Every greeting, every communication, every gesture is accompanied by varying degrees of a bow of the head. South Korea—Busan in particular, perhaps—is relentlessly polite. From the interviewer who went out of her way to walk me through several confusingly identical corridors to where my film Ajji was being screened, to the chauffeur who muddled his directions and caused me a frightening delay of a few minutes (!!), everyone in Busan was so polite it almost shamed me. We tend to ration politeness, doling it out in measured quantities only when necessary. And here were people worked to the bone organising a dizzy mix of screenings, markets, events, conferences, who did not once miss a chance to flash me a polite smile with a slight bow of their head.
I’ve been a zealous fan of (and ardent spokesperson for) South Korean films. Mother, Memories Of Murder, Chaser, The Yellow Sea have been particular favourites. The cinema of a country is often a visitor’s first introduction to the place. I imagined South Korea to be mostly as neo-noirish, cheeky and aggressive as its best cinema. Busan is anything but. As it must be with Mumbai too when someone visits it for the first time after having seen many versions of it in our movies. I was almost disappointed to not get to witness someone being chased down the street with a butcher’s knife…or an old lady dancing in the middle of a field to some silent inner song. Ajji, which was in the festival’s New Currents competition, is a byproduct of my fascination with Korean cinema. I was keen to see how audiences there would respond to a film their own oeuvre had spawned.
Our first screening had Oliver Stone (head of jury) in the audience, throwing a relentless barrage of questions my way. He detected a touch of Korean in Ajji. I was happy to admit it, delighted that it was evident. To me Ajji’s target ‘home’ audience was Indian as much as Korean. And the Koreans embraced it as if it was one of their own! South Korean cinema does something I admire—they push things off the edge. If it’s a mother’s love for her mentally challenged son, the film will make her commit a heinous murder for him. If there’s a gang war, the gang in question won’t have funds for guns, so will go at one another with knives and even bones (!) of meat they have just consumed. The real world is often this extreme when people are pushed into a corner. But it took Korean cinema to show me the same can be mirrored in films. I try to push my characters to extremes too. Especially in Ajji, which is releasing on November 24.
Beyond things Korean, there’s something pulsing through the art, literature and especially cinema of South Asia too. I had to go to Busan to discover it. Not just in India, there’s an indie new wave throwing up new cinematic idioms in Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka. Young, hungry, courageous, focused filmmakers from all these countries are making the world take note. We’re not there yet—that sweet spot the Iranians reached with their cinema in the early ’90s—but we’re only a couple of years from an explosion of talent. I first heard the rumble there at Busan. If ever there was a time to challenge the status quo through our cinema, now is it. Experimentation, defiance and surprise are being celebrated. The tried and tested is being ceremoniously ignored. If an old grandmother can go out there in the middle of the night and change her narrative, it’s time the subcontinent considered doing it too.
(Devashish Makhija is a film-maker)