Beyond English: Parasite opens avenues for world cinema in India?
The epochal victory for Bong Joon-ho's South Korean drama Parasite at the 92nd Oscars has given a ray of hope that the audience will, in the director's words, "overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles" to explore "more amazing films" beyond English, in languages such as Chinese, Lebanese, Romanian, French, Japanese and more.
Indian film distributors who've been working on creating a dedicated foreign film viewership in theatres, are bullish about the growth, no matter how slow it is.
"The market is expanding, but it's slow. Parasite's Oscar win is a game changer at many levels. It'll be a shot in the arm for foreign language films. OTT platforms and YouTube have helped to break the language barrier," says Smriti Kiran, artistic director of a Mumbai film fest, that brings a gamut of foreign films each year.
This change has occurred in the past two years, feels Ashwani Sharma, who distributed the Spanish film A Fantastic Woman in 2018, and the Lebanese film Capernaum and Parasite in India this year.
While the "struggle" with exhibitors to screen such films continues, Sharma, who'll next bring the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, says, "The perception is that a foreign language film is an art film. Exhibitors think these films won't work, and they are right to an extent as in the past, the audience turnout has not been so good."
What worked for the dark comedy Parasite is the buzz and awareness."We marketed it like a regular foreign film as it had already become big when it won at the Golden Globes. We gave it the biggest non- English language release in India with 76 screens, 142 shows in 20 cities."
And with the Academy win, the shows have spiked, and even extended to tier-two cities. Srinivasan Narayan, who stepped into this market with actor Sanjay Suri, was hopeful about the scope of non-English films in India. He rues, "Many people don't watch these films when they are released commercially, but when we screen the films in festivals, there's a big queue and people fight for space. So, I thought at least around 5,000 people would come to watch such films in every town, but sadly, it didn't happen."
It's a difficult market, he avers, pointing out that Parasite is "different" because of the international promotion and also as it is a "commercial movie and not from the art house". He equates it to a Hindi potboiler in the way the action, emotions, narrative and layers have been handled.
Last year, films such as Shoplifters (Japanese), Yomeddine (Egyptian) and Ash Is Purest White (Chinese), were released in Indian cinema halls with theatre-on-demand services playing a key role. However, trade analyst Taran Adarsh says, it's a "tiny market limited to metros".
"Over a period of time, I feel it's only going to improve, but when you have to pay money and go to a theatre, the first choice will always be the local language film - be it Hindi, Tamil, Telugu or Punjabi, and after the local language, it will be English," he explains.
So, what's the solution? Kiran says, "More focused publicity drives, thorough campaigns, better show timings and subtitles need to be worked out to make sure things move to the next level.