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On Squid Game's Geopolitical Shift
How should we think about the ongoing cultural tilt? With pride as the balance shifts East, or as Tagore would, with worry?
Fatima Bhutto’s book, New Kings Of The World, a 145-page volume, thin enough to be balanced on tented knuckles, makes a very interesting, if contentious claim — the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since World War 2 is the growing culture of cinema and music in India through Bollywood, Turkey through soapish Dizis, and South Korea through K-dramas and K-pop. She wanted to include Nigeria and the burgeoning Nollywood scene, but decided to keep her book proposal contained.
She uses American military deployment — which has been at the lowest in six decades, and given the final nail in the coffin of American presence in Afghanistan, prescient — as a proxy for cultural influence. It’s not entirely convincing, given the outdated data she uses to make her claims, but it is a very compelling argument. She meets battling Shah Rukh Khan fan clubs in Peru, academics horrified by the intense industry around constructed fame in South Korea, a woman who is convinced her cancer was cured by the repeated viewing of My Name Is Khan, and shadows Khan himself over a day in Dubai. A woman she speaks to, a fan of Hindi films, living three oceans and two continents away from its epicenter, confesses, “When I dream, I imagine Mumbai.”
The book was published in 2019, and I read it around the time I just got Netflix, a subscription I wasn’t convinced was an economical choice, but it seemed necessary. (Later, my brother would entirely subsidize the subscription, letting me freeload.) I had just started writing about films, and streaming was swirling at the periphery. Everyone who seemed to gloat about streaming and the upcoming swerve in the status quo kept referencing Sacred Games. I had deep reservations about that show, and was convinced if this was what streaming had to offer — over-philosophied, underwhelming, stylish, profane, bloated — then perhaps the status quo might serve itself better by swerving somewhere else.
Of course I was wrong. Streaming gave us access. And access isn’t aesthetically, morally, stylistically consistent. If it gives us Sacred Games, it will also give us The Disciple. Netflix will publish queer-friendly shows, and Dave Chapelle’s transphobic comedy special on the same page. It isn’t a contradiction. It is in fact, what it was designed to do. If you want to be a platform for everyone, for everything, what you give up is moral and aesthetic certitude. You will get both, birdsong and brutality.
I was thinking about Bhutto’s book in the haze of noise around the recently released Netflix phenomenon Squid Game. 456 people, either bankrupt or threatened to be pummeled by loan sharks are given a life raft — they can participate in a series of games. If they win, they get $38.5 million. If they lose, they die.
The show is a wonderful allegory for capitalism. You can argue, why would someone want to put their life on the line for money, or you can argue what would make someone put their life on the line for money. Were they willing contestants or kidnapped by their circumstances? Like Chinese and Indian migrants, the coolies, who were shipped in awful conditions to the plantations in the Caribbean and Cuba and Peru in the 19th Century after the abolition of slavery, these contestants walked into the game giving their consent, but the conditions of consent was capitalist coercion. Who would willfully put themselves on these awful boats to move to awful countries and perform awful labour for awful plantation owners? During the long, dark journeys, the coolies were often pacified by being fed opium. The plantation owners followed suit, rationing out opium, deducting it from their salary. Many coolies turned addicts, and many killed themselves. In 1860, over Cuba and Peru, there were 900 cases of attempted or actual suicide. You can ask why would someone give up their life, or you can ask what would make someone give up their life.
Squid Game was a show that didn’t work for me, and I was pleasantly surprised when my partial pan was totally panned. There are over 120 nasty comments on the Instagram post of the review. It is both haunting and lovely how someone will take a criticism of a show they love so personally — the limits and longings of a fandom. (I remember after my negative review of Scam 1992, I was flooded with DMs from people calling me all sorts of things. The sheer effort it takes to be spiteful, to be a fan.)
Since I watched and wrote about the show only in the aftermath of its fame, I had to acknowledge its stunning achievement, and hold it beside my legitimate criticisms of the show.
“Squid Game is the first South Korean show to hit the No. 1 on Netflix’s top 10 TV show list in the United States. It was also the only show to hit that No. 1 spot in all 83 countries Netflix is in. According to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Squid Game is fast becoming the “biggest non-English language show in the world”. Netflix, which offers subtitles in 37 languages, and dubs in 34 languages, has made the crossover appeal that much more viable. SK Broadband, a Korean internet provider, has sued Netflix to pay for costs from increased network traffic and maintenance work because of a surge of viewers. The meme machine, and the Gong Yoo thirst trapeze is running overtime. The actors are amassing, literally millions of followers, overnight. Pop up stores are opening up in Paris where visitors can play the games they are playing on the show, without their life or their love on the line. Like an uptick in Chess board sales, post the sensational success of The Queen’s Gambit, another all-flash, no-fun offering.”
I don’t want to labour my criticism here, but instead focus on how this is a stunning geopolitical shift in entertainment, one of the biggest shows, a worldwide phenomenon on an American platform, and it isn’t even American. Especially coming from Netflix, there is something to say here.
I always had a problem with Netflix in India releasing their content at 12:30 in the afternoon, that is, 12 a.m. Pacific Time. It centers American time as the moment of premiere. This is true even for Netflix India’s productions, which is odd because Amazon Prime Video on the other hand releases its Indian shows and movies at midnight in India. If a show is made by Indians, mostly consumed by Indians, shouldn’t it premiere in Indian time?
It is the same rigmarole for preview screeners. I got the Sex Education Season 3 screeners weeks after my counterparts in America or UK received it. By the time I had to sign the embargo letter — promising to not post my review before the given date — the embargo date had already passed. But they still wanted the letter signed. Petty bureaucracy.
But the message was clear. Indians aren’t a demographic important enough for American and British shows for its reviewing class to have prior access. It’s fair I guess, and it is probably statistically true, too.
But why was I so irked by it?
I have been reading Pankaj Mishra’s book of essays, From The Ruins Of Empire: The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking Of Asia. In the prologue he very boldly notes that in May 1905 “[t]he contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape.” This was because Japan had just defeated Russia in the waterlogged battlefield of the Tsushima Strait — the first time since the Middle Ages that a non-European country had defeated a European totemic power. All across Asia, there was celebration. Rabindranath Tagore led his students in Shantiniketan, his school in rural Bengal, on a “victory march” around the compound. Gandhi in South Africa, Mustafa Kemal in Damascus, Nehru in India, Sun Yat-Sen in London were all in a jubilant mood.
The possibility that white men were vanquishable sent currents of revolt and hope down a generation of spines, “A hundred fantasies — of national freedom, racial dignity, or simple vengefulness — now bloomed in the hearts and minds that had sullenly endured European authority over their lands.” Thousands of Chinese moved to Japan, “the biggest-ever mas movement of students overseas” to learn. Japan soon became the epicenter of Pan-Asianism.
Japan’s victory, Mishra notes, had “accelerated an irreversible process of intellectual, if not yet political decolonization”. This was what interested me — the intellectual and the political awakening of Asia as a region, and of India as a country. But what does it look like today? We use the word decolonization more than we think about it, because it affords a performance of progressive belief. How does this belief translate?
How do we decolonize our lives that are surfeited and cross-hatched by a globalized world, whose power emanates from the walls of the West? Promising to only read Indian authors, or mostly Indian authors, and finding yourself recommending Fredrik Backman? (I cannot tell you how much I smiled and stuttered listening to Anxious People, performed brilliantly by Marin Ireland. I whole-heartedly wish for you the same smiles and stutterers. Please listen to it!) Deciding to watch only Indian movies, and slumping into a Kiarostami binge? Or worse, Maid? Promising to read the longreads from Fifty Two, but deciding to leave this week’s piece unread, like last week, like last to last week, and instead digging your heels deeper into that New York Times piece about being a Bad Art Friend?
I don’t understand what do with a philosophy I totally get, and rally my horns behind, but when it descends to petty decisions of which show to watch, which book to read, the philosophy becomes ether, and Backman beckons. Does believing in something mean completely unmooring your life in service of that belief? If you don’t completely dislocate your life in service of your belief, do you believe in it at all, or at least emphatically enough for your belief to make a difference? Should beliefs make a difference? Should beliefs be, fundamentally, laborious? Do beliefs, like values, exist not to make our lives easier, but to make it more truthful, however we choose to define truth? Is the truth always inconvenient? As poet Medha Singh noted, it's not a coincidence that insaniyat and insanity are phonetically similar.
Over the 19th Century we got a replacement of European imperialism with America’s informal empire — the military bases that Bhutto thinks helped spread American cinema far and wide, the embargoes that collapsed economies, and the concocted coups from Chile to Nicaragua to Afghanistan that flattened possibilities into problems. Is this the future?
Mishra offers history as consolation. There was a time, he notes, when Islam was as much a universalizing ideology as Western modernity is now. “The fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta had as little trouble getting jobs at imperial courts in India or in West Africa as a Harvard MBA would in Hong Kong or Cape Town today.” So maybe the future holds promise? But what future is it? Another one riven by ideologies of nationalist ego? Is that we need more of? Pride?
For after Japan won against Russia, it also undertook a cruel campaign to assert Japanese identity by so thoroughly humiliating the West, it left a trail of blood across Asia. Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, had warned of this, and in fact lost many a Japanese friend by hazarding a future of Japanese violence. Tagore had always been averse to the idea of nationhood. The nation state, he declared, “is a machinery of commerce and politics turning out neatly compressed bales of humanity … a cult of selfishness [passed off] as a moral duty… It is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
This was not an easy moral to break bread with. Mishra’s book has a very curious chapter on Tagore in the East. When, in 1924, he was traveling across China, he was constantly accosted by student protestors. In the arms of egalitarian ideals fostered by the French and then the Russian revolutions, bolstered by the spirit of inquiry from Western modernity, they rejected Tagore’s idealistic impulse of fighting with “moral and spiritual power”. When he was set to speak in Hankou, there were protest banners, “We don’t want philosophy, we want materialism.”
And that’s the rub. Mishra argues that for Tagore, philosophizing came easy given that economic and political powers were already in the hands of the British. He didn’t have to think about it. But the Chinese and Japanese did. We do. How do we think of the nation today, then, without ego, without giving into the possibility of a future that our country will be the hegemonic power? Can there be dignity and kindness in power?
I do agree that sometimes Tagore comes across as a someone I would effectively tune out today. About the West, he said, “You may force your things into our homes, you may obstruct our prospects of life — but we judge you.” Of what use is judgment if it comes with cognitive dissonance and a banging pair of denim jeans that cling to the ass with the desired erotic effect? Eventually all ideas become hard-edged, all ideologies taper into a reality that has no space for philosophy. What then? Do we finish the Backman audiobook or try to read local serialized fiction? Or maybe close our rowdy evenings with the Mrinal Sen retrospective going on right now on MUBI. Maybe smoke Wills Navy Cuts to feel more, as plants say it, rooted.
You might think it’s funny but it is also deeply tragic. That we can feel so spectacularly and just as spectacularly turn our backs to this feeling. No one wants to live their life like a manifesto and yet, that’s how we organize our ideas.
This dissonance was remarkably shown in Kazuo Ishiguro’s book An Artist Of The Floating World, when a pre-World War 2 propaganda artist has to finally make peace with a post-war youth, that blames his generation for war, who are looking instead to the West, “Japan has come to look like a small child learning from a strange adult.”
He doesn’t invest in judgment as he does in resignation. That the time for his generation to assert itself is on the wane. He recognizes the West has flushed in a kind of prosperity he had not had the luxury of living through. And maybe the generation is all the better for experiencing Japan wrapped in America. That if Squid Game came to us, part of the Korean Hallyu cultural wave of soft power, it came in the American package of Netflix. That whatever cultural pride one feels is inflected by our globalised condition. That my access to the most kind and generous television is girded by an uncomfortable premiere time. That even the best of Indian literature is produced by imprints of Western publications in India, for whom India is a market, one of many. That to take this idea of Indian identity seriously is to, perhaps blind myself to the possibilities that exist beyond your forced, constructed horizon. That pride insulates. That for every Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry, you will have an Ajitpal Singh’s Fire In The Mountain (Singh’s web-show Tabbar releases this week, look out for it.) And that by chasing one, you’ll lose the other. That identity, even as it sustains a false, comfortable idea of the self, it diminishes it too, by not throwing possibilities at it, possibilities that lurk beyond the border. The good and bad.
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