Reel Life: N. Korean Bhaijaan and S. Korean Zaara

CLOY isn’t just about peace and pacifism, there’s also a hope for reunification of the two Koreas, articulated time and again by Se-ri

Reel Life: N. Korean Bhaijaan and S. Korean Zaara
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Namrata Joshi

As I write this column, I am seven episodes into Crash Landing On You, one of the many popular South Korean series—or K Drama as they are popularly called—streaming on a OTT platform near us. I was advised by many friends to have a regular dose of it, promising that it would be therapeutic in these pandemic times when mental stress and physical fatigue are peaking for all.

“It will give you the sanity you seek”, assured one friend. “It is going to soothe you”, said another, calling it her go-to medicine whenever she is feeling down and out. Another spoke about how the K Drama spiral saw her through 2020 and is still her escape in 2021.

I nodded with a distanced amusement as I dipped into the first couple of episodes. Crash Landing On You, currently streaming on Netflix, is about a rich, ambitious and privileged South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) who gets swept away by a storm while paragliding and crash lands into North Korea, where she gets accosted, and eventually protected by Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin) who makes it his mission to send her safely back to her country.

I was initially skeptical. The show felt too close to our own Hindi cinema, both in the story and the telling of it—some exaggerated characters, predictable turn of events, recognizable sweep and tenor of emotions, broad strokes of humour. The politics in Se-ri’s family—the dislike of her half-brothers, especially when her father decides to have her takeover the huge family business—felt familiar. The opposites attract, chatty girl-sombre guy, romance kept harking back to a similar trope in films like Sholay (Basanti and Veeru, Hema Malini and Dharmendra) and Jab We Met (Geet and Aditya, Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapur).

Slowly I found myself getting sucked into the rabbit hole. All in a good way. Despite the usual cliches—the meet-cute, being thrown together by destiny, forced to pose as fiancee, the sudden first kiss, the constant banter, teasing and flirtation—the gradual built up of the love story tugs at the heartstrings.

Veer Zaara of Korea” is how it was described in a still-ongoing Twitter conversation. Rightly put, since it is all about a cross-border romance. But I would like to see it more like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. There Salman Khan went all the way to Pakistan to reunite a little girl with her family. Here Captain Ri is busy trying to smuggle Se-ri back to South Korea.

Just like an Indian film like Bajrangi Bhaijaan had a chunk of it set in Pakistan, this South Korean series seems to be located entirely in North Korea.

What is remarkable is the total lack of animosity in the portrayal of North Korea, there is no demonization of its people. Se-ri’s relationship with the four patrol officers of the captain, or the village women is as sensitively handled as with the Captain himself. It is heart-warming in the positive portrayal of the so-called Other. Despite the underlying hostilities, of late the two nations have been warming up towards each other. CLOY isn’t just about peace and pacifism, there’s also a hope for reunification of the two Koreas, articulated time and again by Se-ri.

But as I begin on the eighth episode with the election results from five Indian states just announced, I find the series reverberating in an even larger way, the character of Captain Ri, in particular. While our political class used derogatory cat-calls like “didi-o-didi” in their election campaign in Bengal (perceived as one of the reasons for their downfall in the state), Captain Ri posits a total contrast with his old-world decorum in dealing with women. “Pawan ka jhonka (breath of fresh air)” is what a friend called him. “My Captain Ri will heal you” predicted another.

It’s a respect for women which is not tinged with any righteousness. It’s not patronizing in any manner. Much as there is the urge to protect a woman, there’s no attempt to let the woman lose her agency in the process. Se-ri remains independent, continues to have a mind of her own. If he protects her by taking in a bullet, she is there to protect him, in turn, by donating her blood. It’s a spontaneous reciprocity, an equal exchange which is lovely.

For me Captain Ri works as a personification of compassion, a quality which easily reaches out at a time when our public discourse is filled with hatred and toxicity, despite the calamity hanging over us that should have ideally brought out the best in us and bound us together.

Here’s a captain committed to his officers and to Se-ri, while we are saddled with leaders who seem to have left the vast population in a lurch for their chase of votes and are clueless about how to handle a calamitous disease. In the leadership vacuum facing us, Captain Ri is the anchor to dream of.

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