Parasite and the smell of poverty

[Spoiler alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched the film].

Image credits: NYT / Neon

Years ago, my grandmother handed a bar of soap to the cleaning lady at our home, as she was leaving after work. The lady smiled smugly as she took the soap, being reminded of the odour she brought into the home. My grandmother hoped the soap would resolve the situation, but the solution was short-lived. She and her unique smell were inseparable.

Humans have unique ways of storing memories, and our sensations are the strongest triggers to bring alive the past. When I think of our cleaning lady now, I can clearly picture her in synthetic sarees, their borders crinkled by dirt. The glass bingles would jingle on her bony arms, golden hoops dangling in her ear lobes that sag like a rooster’s wattle. She took swift steps in blue and white rubber chappals, the heels worn out by the pressures of walking. She knew where the dustpans and mops were, and how to navigate the home. As she cleaned room after room, we would light incense sticks to diffuse the mixture of the smells emanating from them. A strange mix of dirty floor water, a damp mop and her sweat.

None of us ever had the heart to tell her that she carried a strange smell, and the elders just assumed she wasn’t hygienic enough to recognise. If only she took a bath every day, this problem would cease to exist. Hence the idea of soap seemed like a simple solution. The movie, Parasite reminded me, how shamefully wrong we were.

A smell that is borne of the place, time and circumstances you live in. A smell that you are a product of, not the creator. A smell that is forced upon you by the forces of the powerful and mighty, who believe you are destined to live with it.

Neon

Parasite latches onto this idea, to describe the mindset of the wealthy Park family. Even their youngest child can sniff the unfamiliar smell of the semi-basement dwelling Kim family. The lucidity of these smells is reinforced again and again throughout the film. When the son (Ki-woo) suggests they use different soaps and fabric conditioners, the father (Ki Taek) reminds him that they smell of their basement, i.e. the conditions they live in. Their house is chemically fumigated with urine trickling down its walls and a line of dumpsters adorns the lane leading to the nearest subway station.

It is a smell that they cannot get rid of because it is what they are born into. They can only momentarily escape it when working for a rich family. Park family’s repugnant reaction to this smell, cuts right into the heart of the film’s message. That, us the privileged ones believe it is our moral right to remind the poor of their place in this world. That they belong to the places they come from.

Mr Park states that Ki-taek smells like the subway, to which Mrs Park hazily replies that she hasn’t taken the subway in years. A reminder that a subway is indeed a place where one would cross paths with people from all backgrounds, including the poor. A place that the Park family can choose to never enter. A place that isn’t qualified to suit their life, their view, and their senses.

As the film progressed, I couldn’t help but remember all the times my elders/school teachers/neighbours have pinched their noses around domestic help and workers. Even went to the extent of calling them carriers of germs, which brings me to the practice of manual scavenging in India. A practice of cleaning untreated human waste by hand, people continue to be hired as manual scavengers despite the practice being outlawed in the 90s.

How did society manage to do that? First, it presumed someone to be lesser than others to have this as an occupation. And second, it ensured that the person is recognised by that occupation. Whether by caste or smell.

Parasite the film is packaged in a manner that you process it much longer after it ends. It taps into your predisposed ideas of social behaviour, norms and realities, making you uncomfortable in your seat. It makes you check and question the foundations of your privileges. Above all, it dares you to be more human.

Watch it for your own sake.

Reading. Writing. And then, reading some more. Selected works: https://muckrack.com/mariyam-haider

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