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Dystopian fiction from South Korea has held millions around the world agog for four odd weeks. Netflix, the online showbiz platform, has described Squid Game as its “biggest ever series at launch". Of the 209 million subscribers that Netflix claims globally, 111 million accounts were logged as having played at least two minutes of this show since its mid-September debut till Tuesday, according to the company. That’s a huge audience. There also exists a reason to assume relatively few drop-offs: It’s a riveting drama that doesn’t just do what Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite won an Oscar for, which was to peel off the scabs of disparity left by a country’s rapid emergence from poverty, it casts a grim spotlight on the desperation of those pushed into debt traps by their forlorn quest for social dignity and upward mobility. Its depiction of hardscrabble lives, family dynamics and cash anxieties may well be enough to entice Indian viewers.

And then, as Squid Game darkens, there is the dystopia of debt enslavement. A shadowy group recruits deeply-indebted people by checking if they are ready to be battered in lieu of cash prizes, and then lures them to sign up for live colosseum-style games that spin money off bets placed on their survival. Instead of gladiatorial fights, however, the players so recruited must play schoolyard games to win cash bounties. The show’s title is taken from a boxy ‘squid’ pattern drawn on the ground for kids to hobble their way across, like it’s done for hopscotch, say. Its first episode features a version of ‘statue’ or ‘stop-and-go’, where contestants must race for a finish line but freeze midway each time a stop is called. In this case, it’s automated. Any motion detected thereafter results in instant elimination, as agreed upon, and literally so, as survivors discover. This narrative lacks the heroics of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the subtlety of Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games, but then, Squid Game has such a resonant setting and context, especially for Asians, that it could induce bigger gulps.

The serial requires much suspension of disbelief. At times, though, our ability to pay back what we owe is equally fictional. This being so, it would serve us well if those gulps somehow get around, shift attitudes and sway people in a way that restrains a debt overload. Signs of one abound. Entrapped by dubious lending apps dangling small sums as bait, many millennials have found their data stolen, phones blocked and arms twisted in various other ways by collection agents. As reported last year, some victims were clueless about having clicked away key codes of their handsets as collateral to clever ‘payday loan’ apps. For grievances to be lodged, last June the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) asked for app disclosures of the licensed lenders they lend on behalf of. But a grey market still exists, both online and off, and like local moneylenders of our desi bondage cinema, they often charge extortionary rates of interest. The covid crunch pushed many of our jobless to borrow money just for sustenance. Some families had to scramble cash just to save loved ones. As multitudes fell upon hard times, RBI eased money supply. By its data, Indian household debt—with only select instruments counted—had risen to about 38% of our annual output by the end of 2020. One can safely bet it’s a lot larger. We have debtors in the shadows, too, and we don’t know how many can afford to repay.

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