”Parasitic…”: Revisiting 'Domestic help' during the Indian Lockdown through a Cinematic Lens : Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry

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Revisiting 'Domestic help' during the Indian Lockdown through a Cinematic Lens

Banerjee, Debanjan

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Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry 38(4):p 373-377, Oct–Dec 2022. | DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_438_20
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The Prologue: Opening Scenes

The lockdown imposed in an order to curtail the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) has increased our personal and digital time. Being a “dual-edged” sword, technology has gripped us more than ever, taking us into the world of movies, web series, and podcasts. Portals such as YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hotstar are thriving during the months of lockdown, and the usage has tripled in India alone.[1] As new content gets released almost on every other day, people resort to their bucket lists, which have been long due. In that sense, the virus has provided people with time to nurture and reflect on their wishes. The 92nd Academy Awards were held in early February 2020 amid the COVID-19 scare. Like every year, the Oscar lists generate a special emotional valence and interest for the crowd. The winning entries tend to get rapidly streamed, downloaded, and screened at every possible forum. This year, after some initial screenings, the theaters were shut during the lockdown and personal devices became the prime portal of entertainment. Awarded the Best Film this year, Parasite (2019) has generated widespread praise and discussion. The socioeconomic backdrop and contexts of the movie, with the starkly portrayed class-division, are obviously cinematic treats but also revive certain neglected dynamics during the lockdown. Director Bong Joon-ho superbly brings out the cruelty and ingenuity of “employer-employee” relationships in a thrilling yet satirical package, which churns our conscience and social morality at the same time. There has already been significant discussion and critique on the cinematic and sociopolitical aspects of Parasite. As the lockdown extends into the fourth phase in our country, let us revisit it, as well as this iconic movie through a different lens.

Parasite: “We versus They”

The Guardian has termed The Parasite as a “horribly fascinating film, brilliantly written, superbly furnished and designed.”[2] To provide a brief background, the movie centers around two families: a wealthy and affluent one and an impoverished family, who lives by the employment of the former. The socioemotional divide conveying the status, envy, aspiration, materialism, and morality between the two forms a well-designed narrative. Of the various facets it conveys, as a mental health professional, what strikes me most is a chain of conversation between the parents of the poor employed family, which sums up the essence of the message, that the movie wants to convey.

Father: ”The madam. is rich, but still nice.”

Mother: ”Nice because she is rich! Hell, if I had all this money, I would be nice too.”

(Parasite, 2019, 00.30.23)

The dark comical satire in these lines gets snowballing throughout the movie, which makes us ponder over a “class” of people, whom we are “parasitic” on, our domestic help. For years, the suppressed hate and overt dependency on our domestic helpers have made them an inevitable part of socially affluent lives, yet, on the other hand, distant and distasteful for the families whom they serve.

This strikes us all the more, as we go through a historical four-phased lockdown in our country. Discussion about domestic help, their needs, and wages has been rampant on social media. Many have encouraged providing them with masks, sanitizers, hiking their wages, promoting their safety, and granting them periodic breaks. Considering that they might need to work at multiple residences to earn a living, stigma, fear, and discrimination have also emerged, as many have been fired from their respective houses that they serve.[3] Notwithstanding the labor that they put in being vulnerable to the pandemic risks, added by their financial crisis, the pre-existing 'social divide' amplifies their marginalization and reduces recognition in the society. Again, this resonates with a quote from the Parasite, “Rich people are naive, but without creases. The creases are left for us.” The creases are left for us.” The history of pandemics repeats itself. This reminds us of Mary Malon, the well-known cook of 13th Century England, who turned infamous, labeled as “Typhoid Mary” till date, after being accused of being an “asymptomatic carrier” of typhoid bacilli to multiple households she served.[4] Till her death in isolation, Mary never knew her fault but continued to be guilty of being a domestic helper responsible for “transmitting infections.”

Even though the social media claims and asserts positivism for the domestic workers, there have been numerous reports of their eviction from apartments, denial of medical protective gears, admonishment for arriving late due to travel restrictions, and job loss.[3] Social media feeds a month back reported a cook being banned for entry into an apartment, as she tested positive for COVID-19. She stayed stranded on the streets, neglected of treatment and precautions, till the local authorities helped.[5] Understandably, such incidents occur daily, much more than the statistics of media display. The entire COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, but it is vital to understand that the lockdown took even a heavier toll on access to cheap domestic labor.[56] With nuclear families on the rise, and patriarchal system still existing in various families, “part-time” domestic help has evolved as a necessity, rather than a luxury. Over the last few months, I myself had an entirely different and tough experience, when my domestic help was unavailable. The burden I faced with household staff, cooking, etc., made me realize how subtle yet pervasive her presence was in my life! It is true that all of us get used to their presence so fast that their importance gets faded till our own comforts are threatened.

Social Impact of Movies on Lives and Living: A Prelude

Literature and media have depicted social and emotional issues in various shades since antiquity. Beyond the portrayal of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and dementia, social aspects of migration, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, ageism, racism, and others have also been depicted in movies, often in shades which are biased based on public perceptions and reactions. Gerbner and Tannenbaum[7] mentioned that the expected role of popular media was to serve as a “mediator” between scientific knowledge of these psychosocial issues and public understanding so that mass sensitivity and participation can be improved. On the contrary, media representation of emotional problems often portrays them as “bizarre, sordid, frivolous or fearful” which reinforces the traditional notion of social segregation and isolation of the “mentally ill.”[8] The underprivileged population is romanticized making them “heroes” of their own lives with an expected “happy ending” in movies, whereas their struggle and social barriers are underplayed in the process. These deviated representations affect the viewers' knowledge, attitudes, and practices toward these vulnerable populations.[8] Public perceptions of these media “images” have been explained through two popular theories in psychology: cultivation theory (consistent exposure to repetitive and regular content with certain “overt messages” can “reiterate, confirm and nourish values” as well as modify social perceptions of reality) and social learning theory (based on social modeling when an individual reacts to a particular situation by observing or imitating others).[9] Public perceptions toward suicide, gender minorities, mental illness, and people affected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are common examples of such biased perceptions and social stereotypes that stem from media consumption. Misinformation is another offshoot of excessive media usage, especially social media during the ongoing pandemic, which is propagated by several psychological processes such as fear reasoning, cognitive biases, modeling, and boomerang effect.[10] However, all portrayals in mass media are not essentially negative. Many movies have aided in reducing stigma toward certain groups and ethnicities, discrimination against those who are mentally ill, and improve awareness related to early diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders.[11] Mass media has been shown to be an effective tool in mental health promotion, social sensitivity, public education, suicide reduction, and reduction in substance abuse when used responsibly.[1213]

Talking about our country, the Indian cinema is one of the most powerful influential tools in addressing various social issues through the screenplay. Since its advent in 1913, movies have been instrumental in communicating social insights while functioning as a source of mass entertainment.[14] World's largest number of feature films are produced by the Indian cinema.[15] The effect of movies on society in fact is bidirectional and dynamic.[16] Various pertinent Indian social issues such as the caste system, dowry, stigma related to HIV and mental illness, prostitution, gender discrimination, and female infanticide have been brought forward by the movies. Bhatia in ”An Odyssey from Reel to Real” mentions about the complex interplay between public expectations from a movie, intended message from the film director/crew, and preexisting sociocultural norms that shape the media-society dynamics.[17] Cinema is mentioned as a “mediator of social realities and personal dreams, collective concerns and individual aspirations” that follow a humanistic discourse in shaping the material and cultural connotations of our daily lives.[18] Several such examples are Raja Harish Chandra (1913, the first Indian film which was silent and grounded in mythology), Acchut Kanya (1936, love through the caste system barriers), Mother India (1957, self-sacrifice of an Indian mother entangled in poverty, sufferings, and illiteracy), My Brother Nikhil (2005, homosexuality from a human rights and social justice standpoint), Rang De Basanti (2006, youth patriotism), Taare Zameen Par (2007, depicting the psychosocial challenges of a child with special abilities), Slumdog Millionaire (2008, urban poverty in India and life in slums), 3 idiots (2009, revamped look at the Indian education system and youth career paths), Udaan (2010, fulfillment, expectations, dreams and unmet needs of youths), Vicky Donor (2012, sperm donation and assisted pregnancies), etc., These are just a few of the many examples, a detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. The point is, with all the adversities of media, it is indeed a powerful tool to influence and modify public perceptions of psychosocial issues in the community. Experimentation across the genres by expressing the 'cultural idioms of distress' as well as mass appeal aided by outreach and diversity enable movies to shape social reactions to sensitive issue.[1617] Media culture helps to construct social identities, sense of nationality and selfhood, as well as appreciation of race, ethnicity, and sexuality.[19] However, it is a double-edged sword which can either create or distort public views and opinions towards vulnerable populations, their lives and living. This may aid or impede their struggles in the process.

”Servant-Master” in Movies: Beyond the Cliched Role

”Digital screen time” has increased rapidly with the lockdown due to various lifestyle changes and increased media consumption.[20] The Parasite was a common name in most wish lists, being available for free streaming. The question to ask is did the movie serve as our reflective conscience to explore the employer–employee relationship in terms of domestic help? Indian cinema has long romanticized the “servant-master” relationship. The iconic ”Ramu Chacha” or ”Hari da,” as one of the iconic clichés in Hindi or Bengali movies, typically portrays the “faithful domestic help serving an upper-class family for generations, with the obligation to do anything possible for them.” He is the symbol of feudalism playing the dual role of the patriarch and the matron. He is usually single, white-haired, and dressed in what appeared to be the same short-sleeved kurta and dhoti with which he first entered the house decades ago. He materializes out of the inner recesses of the kitchen when summoned, concern for his master writ upon his face and deference radiating from his spine. His supplicatory manner and level of intimacy suggest it is almost hereditary. The person functions as a dinner gong, a relationship advisor, and a nonjudgmental witness to his employer's worst excesses. He weeps for the families, even when tortured and subjected to willful misery. Such characters have evolved throughout in movies such as Padosan (1968), Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1995), and Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya (2005), from the prototype described above to sidekick of the protagonist in Manmarziyan (2018) and the caring ”Budhan” of Piku (2015). Talking of Bengali movies, Thana Theke Aschi (1965), Suborna Golok (1981), and Bhranti Bilas (1963) portray similar roles of “the employed.” Certain flicks shadow a different angle like the Bawarchi (1972), Hindi adaptation of Golpo Holeo Sotti (1966) in Bengali, in which the “servant” is the representative of “morality” and “Karma,” and serves as an eye-opener and organizer for the chaotic family system, whereas in Raja Sen's Damu (1996), the child protagonist develops incredibly close bonds with the old worker Damu, who in order to keep his promise to the kid, desperately arranges for an elephant for her travel.

Finally, India's entry to the Oscars this year, Gully Boy(2019), a musical blockbuster, depicts Murad as the son of a driver who works for a wealthy family in Mumbai, and his stepmother as their maid. Substituting his father for duty, following the cliched “servant's son is always a servant,” Gully Boy had a fertile ground to strike the social chords of the employer–employee divisions, just as the Parasite did. However, soon in the movie, the root cause of all Murad's troubles was depicted to be his father's alcoholism, callousness, and domestic violence. This once again promotes the mainstream idea that the lower socioeconomic classes are responsible for their own psychosocial problems, while the “employers” who form a substantial part of their life and living are reserved for a backseat. The challenges of the “Gully Boy” are solely focused on the ”Gully” he lives in, but a major part of the attitude by his employers that can shape his determination and struggles is thus left out. As a result, though promising a different angle, Murad fails to reflect Kim-Ki woo (the son of the impoverished family in Parasite), where he is told by his mother that ”he has to survive the ownership.”

Domestic Help: A Psychosocial Glance

The number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million to unofficial counts of more than 50 million. Between 2000 and 2010, women accounted for nearly 80% of the increase in their numbers.[21] There are difficulties in ascertaining the exact numbers due to transitory jobs, lack of systematic surveys, and inadequate clarity about the very definition of “domestic help” itself. Since 2009, more than two-third of all domestic workers were employed in urban areas. Especially in India, domestic workers are heavily dependent on their employers for their livelihood, devoid of job security, and bargaining power, without protection under India's labor laws. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of alternate forms of livelihood, and oppression add to the exploitation, straining the employer–employee relationship.[21] Increased stigma has been directed toward them during the COVID-19 situation, which resonates with the classical “class-divide” existing since the times of the ”pestilences” (Bubonic Plague of the 13th Century). Besides, domestic work is an underpaid and poorly organized sector, with high risks of dignity, autonomy, and human rights violation. Often, they are also victims of physical, sexual, and financial abuse, where their voices are repressed. Even on the silver screen, a casually enforced sexual relationship is shown with the domestic help in Zoya Akhtar's Lust Stories (2018), where she only agrees and resigns to it. Their identities need mandatory submission to the police at times, and they are often the first suspect when it comes to domestic theft. Generalizability of certain crimes committed by few domestic helpers has a detrimental impact on the entire sector. Unfortunately, there is not really enough scientific literature to substantiate their distress.

As mentioned earlier, cinema is a form of art that cannot only portray but also influence societal norms. Movies such as Philadelphia (1993),The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Selma (2014), and Girl in the River (2015) have been phenomenal in influencing socioeconomic outlook and helped shape stigma and policies. One of the award-winning Latin American flicks, Roma (2018), created a critical lens to look at the staff–employer relationship, and director Alfonso Cuaron does a commendable job of demarcating the invisible social lines that divide these groups. The “noble and dedicated” servant in Indian Cinema ready to trust his “master” beyond life through decades can be a theatrical delight, but it appears a defensive façade to cover the genuine and cruel reality. Movies like Parasite tap into the rhetoric of reliable servants with an intimate knowledge of their employers that erode gradually into hostility, evoked by the differences in societal attitudes and privileges. It reminds us of another similar film, The Servant (1963), by Joseph Losey, in which a mysterious household help engages in an intense psychological dispute with his employer, wherein both realize the importance of fear, divisions and class. It is high time, we try to portray the domestic helpers based on their own identity and unmet needs, focusing on their dynamics with their employers, which can significantly affect their social position. They can be intelligent, observant, resourceful, and yet at the same time needy and hostile, just like their “masters.” Why cannot this be portrayed in our movies, preserving their respect and dignity, instead of “idealizing” them as fictional characters like the ”Ramu Chachas! Being a native of Bengal, I cannot help but recall a poem and a movie, which focus on similar lines of thought. Puraton Bhrityo (meaning: old servant), a heart-wrenching poem written by none other than Tagore himself, speaks about an old servant ”Keshta,” who is repeatedly accused of any misdeed in the house, including theft, and thrown out repeatedly, while his loyalty and servitude prevents him for forsaking his employer couple; till 1 day, he nurses his ”Babu” (Master) for his ailments, and eventually succumbs to the contagious infection himself. The movie by Mrinal Sen called Kharij (1982) shows a young boy employed by a rich couple who have a son of similar age. He sleeps in the kitchen, being treated as ”he deserves,” and eventually dies one night due to the gas leak. The societal apathy and class-divide are ruthlessly showcased through his employers at the time of the investigation into his death and his father's distress, which synchronizes with the gruesome portrayal of Ki-taek and his family of four in Parasite.

The Epilogue

Parasite has been aptly described by its creator as a ”comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.”[22] A tale of two families from the opposite ends of socioeconomic stratum, it combines the reality with the fantasized dystopia of the audience. Cinematic values and box-office hits aside, it once again forces us to face the tragedy of the traditional “servant-master” relationship during the ongoing lockdown. The domestic helpers have unique vulnerabilities during the pandemic. Social distancing will ironically distance them from their daily bread, and respiratory hygiene stays as an imagined luxury. Added to that are the fear of unemployment, panic of contracting the infection as they work at multiple sites, and the guilt of transmitting the infection to their loved ones. “Othering” has traditionally added to the class-divide to sustain a false psychological assurance to the affluent communities that they are immune to infections, which are equated with “dirt and filth,” classically associated with the domestic helpers. However, the rich cannot practically do without these “others!” What the society fails to appreciate is that the pathogen does not discriminate based on class, race, or economy! So, the risk is bi-directional, and our household helpers are at equal risk of contracting the infection from the “affluent” families they serve. As movies like Parasite gain popularity and are widely watched, one of the dialogues by Ki-taek can influence our attitudes and practices toward our domestic help, ”You know what kind of plan works? No Plan. No Plan at all. That is what keeps us here in the basement.” If unchanged, the consequences can be a “social boomerang” for us, depriving us of our own comforts and luxury, which are so dependent on “others.” The COVID-19-induced lockdown might be another opportunity for the society to plan and care for these “others” with care, compassion, and empathy, not by “romanticizing” their identity in movies or campaigning in social media but by respecting their rights, as much as ours. Only then, can a ”parasitic” relationship evolve into healthy symbiosis.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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