Warning: possible spoiler alert!
There is absolutely no denying the fact that Squid Game is the biggest Netflix sensation ever and even those who haven’t watched it yet would know that!
The story is the work of an absolute genius, the production design is absolutely stunning and the performances captivating. I am honestly unable to remember the last time I was this engaged in a visual experience!
The internet is abuzz with Squid Game news, memes and last I checked, Squid Game merchandise is a going to be all the rage in the upcoming Halloween festivities!
This is a series about a dystopian game show featuring cash-strapped, working class individuals in South Korea. Drowning in debt and gambling away their lives for that one last chance at winning fair and square in world that has always been unfair to them.
Most of the participants have their bodies signed off to middlemen in the ghastly organ trade. They are willing to do anything for that cash prize to settle their debts including killing each other in the process. The players learn two things early on in the game, stick with the strong and eliminate the rest!
Studying the power dynamics amongst the players was the highlight of my engagement process with the series. Nothing about it is shocking for any individual who is aware of the realities of a capitalistic society. What is striking is the way in which the story reveals what you already know!
Through his characters, Hwang Dong-hyuk has managed to creep into the psyche of his audience to re-reveal some glaring social issues that currently plague this world. There are more than one but let’s talk about the racial discrimination and economic disparity faced by the working class, South Asian immigrant for now.
Comrade Abdul Ali (Player 199) – Ali Abdul, a 33 year old Pakistani immigrant played by the Indian born, South Korea based actor Anupam Tripathi is basically a poster boy for the “South Asian immigrant” community!
Ali makes an iconic entry in the first game amidst what seems like mass murder and hysteria. He captures the audience’s attention by a magnanimous gesture that saved Seong Gi Hun , (the main character of show) from effectively getting killed in the first round itself.
From here on, the audience witnesses Ali’s ordeals, the many trials he has to go through in order to prove his worth to the other participants in the game who are all ethnic Koreans. Our man Ali has to bend over backwards, address everyone as “Sir” (accompanied by more profound bows than what is customary in Korea) and not lose his calm while being addressed in a derogatory manner by the fellow participants.
Episode 4 describes Ali as the quintessential South Asian, working class Immigrant. The exact words used are – “Strong and Dependable like the anchor of a ship”!. However, very much like in the real world , Ali is both lauded and exploited by his team mates for the same qualities.
In simple words, player 199 is a strong player to have on your team because of his crazy instinct for survival (which is something that comes naturally to any working class immigrant ) but only as long as he doesn’t come in the way of one of the native Koreans winning the cash prize worth a fortune that could change their lives!
Now, take a minute to think of how a capitalist society such as ours, treats its working class immigrants. There are millions of real life Ali’s spread across the globe, who are exploited every day for their strengths such as the ability to work harder than anyone else in the work force for a significantly lesser amount of money! They are always looked at with suspicion and distrust. (One of Ali’s teammates in the show actually refers to him as an “Illegal Alien”).
In the rare occasion that an employer is pleasant to an immigrant, it is always subject to multiple caveats. The most important being the immigrant in question must never find themselves in a position more advantageous than that of their superior.
Which brings me to Episode 6 and the great betrayal of Ali’s trust in his friend Sang Woo. Sang Woo, the intelligent business graduate from Seoul National University seemingly follows egalitarian principles typical of a person with a decent university education, at least on paper. He befriends the gullible and hardworking Ali for his survival skills, insists that he stop calling him “sir” and gives Ali the impression that their friendship is sacred. It all seems very convincing until Sang Woo realises that they have been pitted against each other in one of the games and Ali turns out to be a better player. It took a hot second for all of Sang Woo’s egalitarian principles to be completely forgotten. This is where Hwang Dong-hyuk’s genius as a director comes into play. In a matter of seconds, he transforms Sang Woo’s rational and composed character into that of a tantrum throwing schoolboy who is unable to simply accept the fact that an immigrant was winning against him!
If, I were to draw a parallel between Sang Woo’s treachery in Squid Game in relation to Ali and a capitalistic world’s treatment of its working class immigrants, my conclusion is as follows:
I don’t believe people hate immigrants per se as much as they hate the idea of immigrants excelling in their work and thriving in their space. In other words an immigrant is not a threat as long as they don’t demand humane treatment from the natural citizens of a country.
Player 199 and his story shows us exactly that!
PS: You played well Ali and you didn’t deserve what you got in return for your unwavering loyalty!