If you haven't heard of Squid Game yet then that is only because you are not a TV buff. Otherwise, it is all the rage! Even if you haven't yet watched the super duper hit Netflix series, you may have read about how it is not just the favourite of viewers but also of critics.
The dystopian drama about a bunch of people who take part in a series of dangerous, extraordinary games because they are at the end of their tether, is remarkable in not just the fantastical storytelling but in raising questions on socio-cultural morality, oh so subtly.
It is not the most amazing series on TV, neither the most ostentatious nor the most clever, but just like how 'Parasite' swept the audience to their feet with its complex messaging and brilliant, taut, screenplay - Squid Game has become the most successful Netflix series ever.
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In all this hype and success, India's entertainment industry - one of the biggest in the world - must sit up and notice this phenomenal Korean success as this is not the only one, not the first and certainly not the last.
Netflix is heavily invested in procuring Korean content and Squid Game is a result of their $700m investment over a period of five years from 2015-20.
From Wall Street Journal to New York Times, the international media is singing paeans in praise of Squid Game. Within a month of its release (on September 17, 2021) it is a global phenomenon and has been the number one watched show in 91 countries. Even Netflix is surprised by its success.
The India OTT scene
It is not as if Netflix is not invested in India. It put $400 million for India content in 2019 and 2020, however no such series as Squid Game so far. Since it started business in India in 2016, Netflix has commissioned about 100 productions which includes 30 films. At one point, India was the company's largest content investment outside of the USA.
Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix had said in April this year "We are still working on India. I would say that (India) is a more speculative investment than, say, South Korea or Japan, which again was very speculative five years ago but we have got a great match there."
However, Hastings was in India last month and met political leaders and gave media interviews - clearly sending the message that India is an important market and even promising continued commitment simply by investing more.
But comparatively the investment in South Korea has been greater and is paying off brilliantly for the company.
Whether it is the unscripted 'Indian Matchmaking' or 'Bad Boy Billionaires', or scripted 'Delhi Crimes', 'Bombay Begums' or 'Ray', their international impact hasn't been much.
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These series have countered the domestic challenge posed by the likes of Amazon Prime or Disney Hotstar's. An original Indian series has yet not caught the imagination of the international audience barring 'Sacred Games'.
There have been other international runaway hits for Netflix viz; Fauda (Israel), Call my Agent (France) Dark (Germany) Lupin (France) or Money Heist (Spain) One More Time or Boys over Flowers (South Korean).
Squid Game is number one on Netflix in India as well and it is the talk of the town. A small Asian country, far removed in language and culture, has managed to break barriers (watching with English subtitles) and is making people binge on the nine episodes despite the visceral violence.
In some ways, the magic lies in the storytelling- the colours, the simple games, set designs, easy linear narrative and, above all, the human backstories.
The socio-cultural disparity, poverty, unemployment, illegal immigration are all peculiarly familiar - wherever you may be watching it from. Credit is therefore due to the creator who Hwang Dong-hyuk who believed in his screenplay despite facing rejections for 10 years.
Could Indian content makers not do the same? That is the question that many filmmakers, writers, directors need to sit up and ask. Indian filmmakers have been inspired by Korean content, there have been remakes of successful Korean films. But in the war of the OTT, originality wins.
Indian has been the largest producer of films for long and the world has been aware of the power of India's film industry. But Korean output has increased dramatically over the years. 'Parasite' winning the Oscar has given a great impetus too.
Korean soft power
It is not just movie or OTT content; K pop is also ruling the world's young. Nothing was more symbolic of Korean soft power as BTS's appearance at the recent United Nations General Assembly.
A million people watched as the seven young men took to the stage. There they are able to address global issues like sustainability and poverty. They have become the ambassadors for the world's teens and young people and not just for South Korea.
This positive image is not just a diplomatic success for the tiny South Asian country. It brings in money and prestige too. BTS alone brings in $3.6B to their economy.
Korean tourism has taken off. Young girls can't have enough of their make-up brands. There is merchandise, concerts, ticket sales. "Squid Game's" Jung Ho-yeon is Louis Vuitton's newest global ambassador for fashion, watches and jewellery.
There has been a 7,780% spike in sales of the while slip-on Vans, the retro-inspired tracksuits and boiler suits are selling like hotcakes.
The star cast is now making appearances on US TV shows such as the Jimmy Fallon show.
This is not a one-off, but a sustained acceptance and proliferation of Korean culture to the world which can only be good for the country.
Joseph S Nye, Jr's concept of "soft power", which came about in the late 1980s, is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want.
This power co-opts people rather than coerces them." It helps in winning hearts and minds that K culture is veritably doing.
India's always relied on its cultural influences, cinema being one it most powerful export. Streaming services have inevitably made the world's time zones disappear.
Content makers may have to rely on and study the consumption habits of Generation Z which is where, according to a Deloitte study, the next wave of disruption may lie. All indicators say that heavy-duty consumption will continue to grow and India cannot miss this golden age of TV.
(Vineeta Dwivedi is a media industry professional and now a faculty at Bhavan's S P Jain Institute of Management and Research.)
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