On Monday, Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean drama, Parasite, created history when it became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Additionally, in a surprising turn of events, it also won Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, along with Best International Feature.
That’s four wins out of the six that it was nominated for. Everybody wanted that, but nobody thought it would actually happen.
“Thank you so much. When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that ‘the most personal is the most creative’. That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese,” Bong said in his speech. “When I was in school, I studied Martin Scorsese’s films. Just to be nominated was a huge honour. I never thought I would win.”
Parasite’s history-making win coincides with its India release—the film is currently playing in over 40 screens in Indian cinemas, a rare feat for a South Korean movie. It has been distributed by Ashwani Sharma, who snagged the release rights for the Indian subcontinent after the film’s Palm d’Or win at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“I saw the film in the last leg of the festival and was blown away by it,” Sharma recalls in a phone conversation with HuffPost India. “It was evident that this film will go places and I had to get my hands on it. Usually the top prize at Cannes goes to a slowburn-type of a film but Parasite crossed that barrier.”
A Delhi-native, Sharma moved to Mumbai in the ’90s and worked on television shows, including Doordarshan. He says he has directed several ad films and documentaries and produced Marathi and Bengali films.
The first film he released as distributor was Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome, followed by Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman and Capernaum. The other big film Sharma has in his catalogue is another Cannes darling: Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
While Sharma is reluctant to reveal the specifics, there was a bidding war for Parasite’s international rights. Towards the end of the Cannes festival, when the film won the Palme d’Or, distributors, sales agents and critics knew that the film was destined for greatness.
“And yet, I didn’t quite imagine it’d get a Best Picture,” says Sharma.
Parasite, according to Sharma, is the most widely released foreign-language film in India. On its release day, it opened in 76 screens across India with over 100 shows a day. Some cinemas were running an Oscar special programme that allowed the film another 42 shows. “We pretty much promoted like a mainstream film with ads, screenings, online contests etc.”
However, the biggest challenge Sharma had to face was the same thing that made Parasite a global sensation: the Internet. After generating tremendous buzz in its festival-run, the movie leaked online and several cinephiles had already watched it on Torrents. “If that wasn’t the case, we’ve seen even more footfall in the theatres. Many of those who had seen online didn’t show up in cinemas,” Sharma said.
“The biggest challenge Sharma had to face was the same thing that made 'Parasite' a global sensation: the Internet.”
But even then, the film has done remarkably well in the Indian market with Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad being the best-performing territories.
“I was disappointed in Kerala and Kolkata. We got tremendous response to our promotions from Kerala but it didn’t turn into audiences showing up in theatres.I also expected better from Kolkata, given the perception of the city, but it didn’t quite work there.”
In October last year, the buzz was that Parasite would premiere at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival but Sharma didn’t want that. Why? “It was a strategic decision,” he says. “A good chunk of people, such as cinephiles and critics, would’ve seen the film then and it wouldn’t generate the same response on release. This was just one of the reasons.”
Releasing Parasite on such a scale in India has taught Sharma a bunch of hacks. “The great thing is now we have access to very specific data which we can use to fine-tune our release strategy for subsequent foreign films. With the Best Picture Oscar, I sense a cultural shift happening in the way we look at international cinema. Truly a special moment.”