Squid Games, the South Korean series of nine episodes, is the greatest hit that Netflix has today with over 120 million viewers and counting. It is about 456 men and women from poor or lower-middle-class backgrounds being eliminated through six children’s games to win a big cash prize. It is somewhat like Auschwitz; only in the concentration camps, getting out alive would have been the prize, if it is now coded into a game. The Squid Game(s) are arranged by a very bored rich man for him and a few of his friends (billionaires from across the globe) to have a sense of life that money has robbed them of.
The series has a number one viewership in India, too. It means most of the movies and web series that Netflix or Amazon Prime in India are made on the presumption that the Indian audience does not experiment with ideas.
Squid Games is very violent besides being overwhelmingly amoral for the most part. That the series tops the chart in India means, among other things, that Indians are not, after all, such good people at heart that they do not fantasise the opposite of what they would like to see happen in their own lives.
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The reason why most of the OTT and movie fare on tap is dull is precisely because no one wants his own mediocre and middle-class life to be shown all over again on screen. He wants to see what he can be in a place without law and order. His worst or best self. That universal phantasy is what renders Squid Games, well, universal.
I did not think Squid Games was truly great, though engaging. The characters are typically Korean-melodramatic and contrived. The plot is often unbelievable, hundreds are massacred apparently in the middle of the city, and no one much cares, for instance.
But the basic metaphor that we are all pawns in some rich man’s (god?) game holds and segues well with the post-informational age where virtuality seamlessly enters into the real, and we end up interacting more with a thing as shadily unreal as Facebook (think of your 5,000 friends whose names you can’t recall if paid) and less on solid earth, with your family.
Most of the Indian fare on mainstream OTT is unwatchable. There are, of course, exceptions. But generally, in any given movie or episode, we have a rough idea of what is going to happen after the first 10 minutes. It is all so predictable. As Eliot said of Tiresias, the blind-seer poet, I Tiresias, an old man with wrinkled dugs, perceived the scene and foretold the rest. Good old Tiresias would puke at the predictability of most of the streaming fare.
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Generally, the mainstream OTT platforms exhibit a high rate of firing and hiring talent. Recently, Netflix reportedly fired its top team because they slipped up on Scam 92 (on Harshad Mehta), which then went to Sony LIV. The show turned out to be a hit. As a result, though, Sony has been in the throes of true-life story fixation, a difficult genre of filmmaking because this is not a country that appreciates truth despite pretensions to it; nor a truth easy to dramatise. As the poet said, the human mind cannot take too much reality. Check the social media. Most liberals— who naturally have more claims to a truthful life because they are a priori correct — will find evil out there, outside themselves; they will invariably externalise the dark. The Right has a very clear idea of dos and don’ts, which is why censorship comes naturally to them. In places like India, therefore, fiction is more the sustainable format. The OTT guys in Sony LIV etc don’t get it because they think they have cracked the winning formula, all worked out in one series, and now they need only to repeat it.
That success is a repeatable model in the creative industry is an IIM fantasy. Almost all the managers who run the streaming platforms in India are from one business school or another. Their exposure to creativity is a box with two apertures: inputs go into one, outputs come in the other. They have no idea how creative talent works or how a new work of art/entertainment is exactly the opposite of their model of repeatability. Squid Games is a success because it is original. It does not follow old leads. That goes for any outstanding success in the streaming business. It is those shows that do NOT follow the beaten path that draw the most eyeballs. The new is not a function of the accumulation of old, familiar parts. The new is a departure.
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The problem with managers and stenographers who run the shows in India is that they are not in their boardrooms and glass cabins, looking for talent; they are looking at a product working to a set of instructions.
It is a safe bet that most men and women running Indian OTT platforms have neither read enough nor watched enough. They went to their respective business schools, appeared for interviews, and here they are: wondering why they can’t come up with international success. The reason is that they are pawns in a game, which is what happens to the Squid Games protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, who — out of material compulsions — joins the game and then breaks the rules to emerge from it. Indian OTT needs change at the top. An unconventional writer or a filmmaker as the boss to bust the boring game. At the very least, someone who has not been to the IIMs.