Synopsis: This article tries to provide a sociological analysis and understanding of five movies which deal with themes essential in sociology.
Movies are a great way of representing our society–its functioning, institutions, and social changes. Sociology even has a particular sub-discipline focusing on film analysis. While some movies concentrate only on providing entertainment, others use their wide reach to feature important social issues.
To analyze movies, sociologically or otherwise, it is imperative to watch them in their entirety and be mindful of what is on the screen instead of consuming them as a mere form of entertainment. Reading a synopsis of the movie beforehand might help in developing a basic idea about its broad theme(s). While it might appear irksome to do for movies, it also helps to take down notes of important scenes, dialogues, camera-shots, and other relevant information which will be indispensible within the analysis. Next, one might want to decide the key sociological aspects which they want to focus on about the movie. It might be how the social situations displayed in the movie connects to or diverts from the current state of society. Or, it might be use of symbols within the movie to highlight some issues or features of social reality. One may also benefit from picking out particular sociological perspectives, theories, etc. which fit the theme of the movie. This provides for a more in-depth and focused understanding.
Concepts – social class, class hegemony and conflict, and social inequality
Bong Joon Ho directed Oscar-winning tragic-comedy/satire Parasite is a cinematic masterpiece comparable only to few others. The main themes discussed are social class, class hegemony and conflict, and social inequality.
The film uses hyperbolic storytelling to highlight social inequality and class conflict through the wealth gap. Class differences form the nucleus of the movie, as they do in the social reality of today’s world. Using brilliant metaphors and subtle dialogues in just the right places, the movie is flawless in providing entertainment while incorporating a discomfort-inducing portrayal which etches itself into the awareness of the audience. The ending leaves everyone struggling to keep up with the sudden change of situations. However, exaggeration was crucial. It brought to notice a key yet often shelved aspect of social stratification–socio-economic class division. Long after the end, the movie ensures we keep ruminating over what social class entails in our daily lives.
Parasite’s poster demands our attention. The different colors of the redact bars on the people’s eyes inform us which person has relations to whom, and how they are separated from one another even though they stand on the same lawn. This is the first feature of the movie which shows distinction and division between the rich and the poor.
Class has three important components in sociology: Property: the possessed material assets; Power: the ability to fulfill desired actions regardless of resistance; and, Prestige: the importance accorded by others to certain people. Quantity available of each determines which social class people fall into: capitalist, upper-middle, lower-middle, working, working poor, or underclass.
In Parasite, the Parks have all three in plenty: they are wealthy, they are powerful, and they command respect in society. Wealth is in the design of their house, their recreational activities such as camping trips, and how they are able to hire ‘staff’ for any requirements (such as housekeeping). Their wealth facilitates their power, using which they dismiss people from their jobs without second thoughts. Prestige manifests itself when basement-bound Geun-sae shouts “respect!” towards a poster of Mr. Park.
In contrast, the Kims lack in all three. They are without property–a poverty-stricken family of four unemployed adults, living together in a cramped semi-basement. They have no power over their life situations, and can barely sustain themselves, let alone do whatever they want. When Moon-gwang and Geun-sae discover their plot, they are rendered unable to carry on with their ‘plan’. In a society where wealth equates respect, the Kims are severely disadvantaged in prestige. Before either of them knows stability in forms of jobs, none can do anything about it, even if it means tolerating the view of a person urinating outside their window while they have their dinner.
As the Kims get hired, with Mr. Kim as driver, Mrs. Kim as housekeeper, Ki-Woo as tutor, and Ki-jung as an art therapist, there is a constant struggle between the two conflicting classes of the Kims and the Parks. Dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Park, attitude of Mr. Park to those who work for him, etc., all display the significance of class differences to the family. They do not want those ‘lower’ than them to “cross the line”, which Mr. Park says when he thinks his driver had sex with someone on the former’s seat instead of on the driver’s.
The ‘social ladder’ is both metaphorical (shown through stairways) and real in Parasite. By belonging to the lower tier of socio-economic order, the Kims have poor physical health. They tolerate stink bugs, endure fumes from sterilization drive to kill these bugs, and eat frugally. Living in cramped spaces does not help their case. Even when their basement floods during the monsoon rains, they come in contact with sewage water and waste. Further, their economic conditions jeopardize their education. Both Ki-Woo and Ki-jung cannot continue their higher education despite being talented in English and Arts, respectively. This means that even their next generation does not have hope of being better off.
Again, the Park family is a pole apart. Health improves in an ascending order within the social hierarchy. The Park family can go beyond general healthcare and afford trauma therapy for their son. Mrs. Park’s remark “Do people still get tuberculosis?” shows how the wealthy have the luxury of being blissfully unaware of illnesses. Education is also easy–the children can avail private tutors beyond normal schooling. The Parks can also partake in recreational activities: the youngest child plays with toys (depicting Native Americans or ‘Indians’ which they purchase from the USA, which also depicts a lack of cultural understanding and appreciation), can go to camping trips, etc. In short, they are able to afford comfort, while the Kims struggle to even access necessities like the internet.
The Parks restrict the Kims’ ‘social mobility’: the ability of classes to climb up the social ladder. Mr. Kim, however much he aids Mr. Park, is just a mere worker for the latter. Friendship is not possible, and too much of conversation or laughter is considered “crossing the line” by Mr. Park, and should not be encouraged. The end of the movie hints at intergenerational mobility when Ki-Woo promises his father to earn enough money to buy the house which traps Mr. Kim. However, to attain such a humongous task would be a fancy.
Important metaphors and parallel visuals include (i)‘cockroaches’, and the Kims running away from the Park house the minute the real owners arrive; (ii)the upstairs and downstairs mobility of the two families, one interpretation of which is the ‘rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer’ phenomenon of capitalism; (iii)the rains, which depict big problems which humans face from time to time, but which, due to class differences, affect the poor and the rich differently: the Parks had to cancel their camping trip but were able to throw a party the very next day, while the Kims lost their home and belongings.
While some are critical of the exaggerated situations in the movie, Parasite proves its superiority in storyline, dialogues, performance, execution, camera-work, and narration.
Pariyerum Perumal (2018):
Concepts – social stratification, Indian society, caste system, caste-based discrimination, anti-caste movement
A gut-wrenching narration evoking a multitude of feelings in the form of anger, lament, and finally hope, Mari Selvaraj directed movie Pariyerum Perumal is a portrayal of one of the biggest social ills that haunt India even today. The movie deals with the sickening nature of the caste system and how it manifests in human lives, not sparing even respectable institutions such as education.
Pariyerum Perumal traces the story of Pariyan, a young boy belonging to an oppressed caste. Within the first few minutes, the gruesome death of Pariyan’s dog, Karuppi, and the song that follows declare the theme of the movie: the caste system is a social evil that spares none. Pariyan decides to pursue a degree in Law, and while in college, falls in love with his friend, a dominant caste girl, Jothi Mahalakshmi (Jo). Pariyan deals with harassment, physical torture and abuse, and humiliation by Jo’s family, who warns him to stay away from Jo. What follows is Pariyan braving through all hardships to establish his importance and dignity as a human.
There are important symbols in the movie which depict the cruelty of the prevailing caste system in India. In the first shot, when Pariyan and his fellow hunters are bathing themselves and their dogs in a pond, some seemingly ‘upper’ caste people arrive and urinate in the same pond. Pariyan and his friends also have to move away to make space for these people. This shows how people from the so-called ‘lower’ castes are denied basic human decency and respect. The same humiliation follows, in a much more active manner, when Jo’s cousin, Sankaralingam, and his friends beat Pariyan up, and urinate on him to ‘show him his place’. And again, when Pariyan is pushed into the women’s bathroom. And again, when Sankaralingam and his men denigrate Pariyan’s father. The repetitive dishonor brought upon Pariyan and his people is representative of the never-ending torture people belonging to the oppressed castes have to face in India.
The dominant caste people in the first section of the movie decide to “put an end” to the hunting of Pariyan and his friends, and the very next scene shows the death of Karuppi who was tied to the railway tracks. The death was symbolic of the uncountable murders that oppressed castes have to face due to caste hegemony. A parallel is drawn by displaying a series of murders of ‘lower’ caste people by an ‘upper’ caste old man, who describes it as a “service to God”. Caste-based honor killings are one of the several gruesome realities of Indian society, and the movie does not back off from showing them as they are. The mason helps a family murder their daughter Kausalya, and pass it off as a suicide, because she had fallen in love with a lower-caste boy. Unable to murder ‘lower’ caste Pariyan at the end, the old mason commits suicide–much in the same manner Karuppi was killed. One might interpret it as the hope that one day, unable to subdue the voices of the oppressed castes, the mentality of the ‘upper’ caste people will have to ‘commit suicide’.
Pariyan, while wary of his caste, understands that only education is can bring him the respect not given to him naturally, and insists on using “BA.BL with a line on top” alongside his name all the time. He never backs down from making ‘upper’ caste people understand how he is the same as them. He never loses his fighting spirit and shines as a ray of hope for the oppressed.
The caste inequality shown in the movie is stark. Instead of using metaphors and hidden meanings, the film uses a head-first and straightforward approach to tackle caste-based discrimination. However, figurative usage is not wholly absent. After Pariyan is beaten up by Jo’s family, the scene depicts a battered Pariyan left locked in the room. This symbolizes the indignity that discrimination forces upon ‘lower’ castes: to continue existing, or be ‘spared’ by the dominant castes, the oppressed castes must tolerate the inhuman acts and limits forced upon them. The use of colors is also significant. Blue, a color revered by Ambedkarites, and used several times in the movie, denotes hope as well as resistance to the subjugation of ‘lower’ caste people.
The scores’ powerful lyricism, camera work, plot, and direction combine to produce a work which is vehement in its protest against caste.
Also Read: Social Stratification in India
Concepts – religion, fashion, superstitions, polytheism, god-men (gurus), charismatic authority, religious symbols
A movie that attracted enormous controversy in India, Rajkumar Hirani directed satire PK provides a deconstructed view of the human world, especially organized religion. In a country where religion forms the basis of people’s social consciousness, PK dares to pose questions that dismantle the charisma of God-men and God itself.
PK traces the story of an extraterrestrial who visits Earth to understand the human species. His ‘remote control’ to command his spaceship gets stolen, and he is left to fend for himself on an unknown planet. What follows is PK’s relentless struggle to mingle with humans and find his ‘remote’ so that he can return home. He meets Jaggu in Delhi, and together they try to get back his ‘remote control’ from God-man Tapaswee.
Because PK has no notion of how human society works, rather integral human elements, such as clothes, money, and, most of all, religion, leave him confused. He slowly grasps some of human behavior, but what baffles him the most is religion. Religion’s components are taken apart and inspected in the film through their symbols, functions, and criticisms.
The film begins by tackling four important issues–religious conflicts (between Hindus and Muslims), inter-nation hostility (between India and Pakistan), declarations of ‘gurus’, and superstitions. Jaggu and Sarfaraz fall in love, but her family condemns it. Her father consults Tapaswee, an established religious guru with a massive business empire, who ‘consults’ God and concludes that Sarfaraz will never marry Jaggu. This plants a suspicion in her mind, and when the very next day they decide to marry, and a letter, supposedly from Sarfaraz, calls their marriage off, Jaggu leaves Belgium for Delhi. PK, in the last scenes, reveals the reality and proves Tapaswee’s predictions wrong. It represents the misleading nature of religious preachings, which steer our minds towards what could go downhill instead of imparting hope. The movie further discusses this when PK asserts that ‘the wrong-number-God’ has set up a ‘business of fear’ and takes advantage of people’s apprehension.
Charismatic authority is a legitimate form of domination in society based “on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him” (Weber, 1997). Tapaswee represents charismatic leadership. People revere him because he can ‘communicate’ with God. PK’s questions on ‘wrong number’ leave Tapaswee disconcerted because there is no real answer to why God will ask their children to suffer to attain something rather than providing solutions. The failure of Tapaswee’s prophecy about Jaggu and Sarfaraz dismantles his authority, seen through contempt of Jaggu’s father in the last scenes.
PK posits some crucial questions: which God do we truly worship in today’s world–the one that created us, or the one that we fashioned to serve ourselves? The one that should unite us all or the one that fragmentizes human society? And because God has so many identities, which, or rather whose, God is the true one?
Fashion is another important element in PK. When PK first wears a skirt, people laugh at him, and he understands that clothes are different for women and men. Refuting this demarcation leads to severe social ridicule. Clothes and colors also define religion: white symbolizes death in Hinduism, but weddings in Christianity; black represents death in Christianity, but marriage life in Islam (these are for women, only). Names also decide religion: the constable decides that “Dr. Rudy D’Mello” means that the person is Christian. PK describes fashion’s role in religion by taking five people of different religious backgrounds and changing their dresses. The message is clear–since “no mark on our bodies determines our religion”, fashion brings together people of one religion together, while separating them from people of other religious groups. Georg Simmel contended a similar phenomenon in his essay ‘Fashion’.
The movie makes us think twice about how religions control human lives. PK expertly blends comedy and criticism and urges us to be wary of godmen, preachers, and ideas which evoke violence in the name of religion.
Weber, M. (1997). The theory of social and economic organization. (T. Parsons, Ed.). Free Press.
The Great Indian Kitchen (2021):
Concepts – gender, gender roles, family, marriage, gender inequality, patriarchy, gender discrimination
Written and directed by Jeo Baby, The Great Indian Kitchen serves us a realistic and austere depiction of patriarchy within hundred minutes. The movie deals with themes of marriage, family, and gender inequality through the daily activities in an Indian household.
The Great Indian Kitchen follows the story of a dancer who ties the knot with a teacher in an arranged marriage. Patrilocal residence being the norm for most marriages within India (and around the world), the woman moves into her husband’s house after their wedding. The next few minutes of the movie disconcert us and begin to dismantle any inaccurate ideas we might have had about the movie. We come to realize that the movie’s title is a dig at patriarchal norms in society.
The movie displays a very typical picture of Indian marriages and gender norms. Several shots show kitchen activities–dosas being made, vegetables being cut, utensils being washed, etc. Only women engage in all of these. The mother-in-law works alone around the house. Washing, cleaning, sweeping, and mopping–she single-handedly manages all household chores. While she toils away, her husband rests, surfing the internet. Come morning, she has to hand toothpaste on a brush to him. He is lethargic even in brushing his own teeth while the two women of the house work at record speeds in the kitchen to prepare breakfast. The teacher also leads a slow morning like his father, engaging in yoga practice. The depiction does not instigate any questions immediately because it is so normalized in our society. But the comparative shots of kitchen sounds and quietness make us think twice. For married women, the morning starts with numerous household noises, while men have the luxury of tranquility.
The problems begin to surface at the breakfast table. The wife and mother-in-law hurry between the table and the kitchen serving food to the men. After they are done eating, they leave the table messy, without any consideration for how the women will eat after them. The cleaning work is also left for women. After her mother-in-law leaves, the wife grapples with all the household chores alone. She begins to feel acute displeasure towards the men. While she works tirelessly, not only do they not empathize with her, but they also have the audacity to complain. This continues for days. The only ‘relief’ she experiences is during her periods. Even this reeks of sexism: instead of actually feeling compassion and love towards her, the people of the household do not let her work because menstruation is ‘impure’.
Household work is only ever passed around among the women. When the wife cannot work, the maid, or the mother-in-law, or even women from other houses, such as aunts, do. The men engage in leisure activities, take care of their bodies and health, etc., while the women do not even have time to read the newspaper. The men display their displeasure about food, make important decisions on behalf of adult women even when they are not asked to, and keep women subdued.
The husband is a prime example of male duplicity. He teaches Sociology to a women-only class and speaks about what ‘family’ means. However, his hypocrisy shines through as he displays no form of self-evaluation when it comes to actually practicing what he preaches. This seems to be a common occurrence for him, as he practices proper table manners in restaurants, but conveniently forgoes them at home. It shows an acute absence of proper conceptualization of what one learns, because Sociology is one subject which demands self-reflection. His vanity is clear when, instead of trying to improve himself, he gets angry on his wife’s criticism. Not only does he shove all housework on the women, he has the cheek to ‘test’ his wife on her cooking skills, never even bothers to call a plumber, and prevents her from becoming financially independent.
Marital rape is another important issue highlighted in the movie. Whenever the wife refuses any sexual advances, or brings notice to her pain during their intercourse due to absence of foreplay, the husband either coaxes her or asserts himself over her.
By including the issue of menstrual impurity surrounding Sabarimala temple, The Great Indian Kitchen highlights how patriarchy manifests itself both in households (micro-level) and the larger society (macro-level). The movie, however, shows potential for a better tomorrow when the dancer, enraged with the constant sexism meted out to her, serves garbage water to her husband and father-in-law instead of tea, and leaves the house. The next few clips show her free and independent as a dance teacher.
However, the movie leaves a clear message by showing the next wife of the teacher. Unless society changes itself and patriarchy is uprooted, the same inequalities and atrocities against women will continue for generations to come.
The Hate U Give (2018):
Concepts – identity, race, racial prejudice/discrimination (racism), police brutality, racial violence, activism, community, racial stereotypes
Directed by George Tillman Jr., The Hate U Give is the movie adaptation of the young-adult novel by Angie Thomas. The movie presents a realistic narrative of what race means in the United States (and around the world) and deals with themes of racism and police brutality.
The movie focuses on Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old high school student. She lives in a black community in Georgia called Garden Heights with her family. From a very young age, Starr and her siblings are given lessons on appropriate behavior when facing police inspection, an inevitable occurrence even if they had not done anything wrong. A little later, the motive behind these teachings becomes clearer. Because they are black, it is automatically assumed by the police that they are a threat, that they always possess weapons, are naturally violent, and will employ weapons against people. American police force shows little to no consideration when it comes to black civilians: they accuse black people of atrocities which they have not committed but might have the ‘possibility’ of doing, and do not hesitate to shoot (and kill) without issuing a prior warning. Starr’s uncle, a policeman, reveals that a white person, even if they were a possible criminal, would be warned first in such circumstances. The death of Starr’s childhood friend Khalil displays this vehemence against black people.
Despite people trying to live peacefully, criminalities are abounding in Garden Heights. For having the possibility of a better life absent of discrimination, Starr’s parents send her to a private school instead of their community one. While it helps her stay out of trouble, Starr has to constantly juggle between her two versions to fit in–one where she cannot be too rowdy and another where she must tone down her private-school-grooming. Starr’s violent neighborhood and constant fear of being indicted simply for being black do not help her situation. As a teenager, she already has a lot on her plate with her education, basketball, relationships, etc. But being a person of color gives her additional problems, leaving her in a constant state of emotional turmoil. It represents how black people, regardless of their age, cannot lead peaceful and happy lives without having bothersome interferences.
“T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E.” is a powerful abbreviation that emphasizes a crucial message: “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everyone”. Growing up among violence, lack of resources and fewer opportunities throughout their lives socializes children to think that brutality is the foundational truth of their lives. The outcome? An increasing number of people engaged in criminal activities. It is starkly true for the people of Garden Heights. But “the chain can be broken” as Starr shows us by protecting her brother Sekani from the police and from using a gun.
The Hate U Give does not serve us fantasy on a golden plate. The officer who wrongly shot Khalil is not held guilty even after Starr, a primary witness, provides first-hand evidence about the incident in front of a grand jury. The peaceful protestors are said to violate laws and dispersed by using tear gases. Starr’s high-school friend Hailey uses the school protest as an excuse to skip class. She sympathizes with the police officer’s family instead of the wrongly murdered Khalil and reveals later that she likes Starr only because she is not as ‘threatening’ as other black people, in whose hands even a hairbrush can be considered a weapon. Hailey is a perfect example of white privilege and ignorance.
However, the movie does not cancel optimism from the equation. Starr’s boyfriend Chris, who is white, portrays a black-ally. He is unaware of the situation at first, and does not ‘see color’, but he understands that in this fight for racial equality, he can only help Starr by doing as she instructs. Starr’s fighting spirit and will to end racial discrimination instills vigor in the audience as well. Overall, The Hate U Give packs all the essential elements of a movie that speaks up against racial prejudice and intolerance.
Also Read: Film Studies: An Overview