It wasn’t just American rom-coms, Nordic crime series, and Turkish dramas that became part of our lives in 2020. Indians have a new ‘K’ in their lives. It’s not Karan Johar or Ekta Kapoor, but the Korean culture factory. Korean pop, dramas, and beauty were already thriving subcultures in India, but thanks to the pandemic, they’re now part of India’s mainstream. You mention Korean entertainment, and the conversation is no longer limited to the Oscar-winning film Parasite.
Sometime in 2017, I finally ticked off the hit 2010 K-drama Secret Garden from my to-watch list. The 20-episode drama is a canonical name that features in many ‘top’ Korean dramas lists. I watched it on a site called KissAsian — a mecca for K-drama enthusiasts before streaming platforms like Netflix were in vogue.
Fast forward a few months into 2020, and I had just finished watching Crash Landing on You, one of the highest-rated dramas on Korean cable TV, on Netflix, which has replaced regular cable TV for most urban Indians.
Now, I had a huge selection of K-dramas at my disposal, easily able go into a rabbit-hole of watching older shows like Hyun Bin’s Secret Garden and Son Ye Jin’s drama Something In The Rain. When the latter, a tale between an older woman and a younger man first released in 2018, Netflix used to take its time airing the latest episodes. As the tearjerker series was nearing its end, I remember frantically scouring through torrent sites that uploaded raw episodes (without subtitles) within hours of airing in its home country.
But in 2020, thanks to the surge in viewership during Covid-19 lockdown, and Netflix and Korean production houses signing deals to bring more Korean content onto the platform, K-dramas are finally getting their due in India. Urban, English-educated youth, who previously preferred to consume American or British sitcoms, are now increasingly warming up to testing out content from other regions.
With ample time to spare and a pandemic raging outside, the feel-good charm of K-dramas (if one spares the likes of zombie thriller Kingdom or The World of the Married that deals with cheating and betrayal, or Stranger that wrestles between prosecutors and police) is providing viewers an escape from the nightmarish reality and ennui that Covid-19 has brought into our lives.
And on the upside? More and more young Indians are eating ramen and trying out Dalgona coffee. According to an Economic Times report, there was a 256 per cent rise since March in the number of Indians opting to learn Korean on the language-learning app Duolingo. On India’s music streaming platform JioSaavn, the internationally renowned K-pop band BTS moved from 68th place in January to eighth in October. Korean soft power is in full swing.
From the periphery to the center
Being on Netflix, one of the biggest OTT platforms, has undoubtedly lifted K-dramas out from the fringe to the centre-stage. But we must remember that states such as Tamil Nadu and Mizoram were already poring over K-dramas that were dubbed, or had subtitles, in regional languages before streaming platforms took over and made them mainstream.
It is indeed interesting that a K-drama like Itaewon Class or Record of Youth can now find mention in the same breath as FRIENDS or Game of Thrones — a rarity even two years ago. The K-drama It’s Okay to Not be Okay, that ran between June and August this year, kept featuring on Netflix India’s Top #10 for weeks, reaching as high as no. 3. The Hallyu fever, or Korean wave, that washed over China, Japan, and most of Southeast Asia nearly two decades ago has finally found a foothold in India, and there are numbers to prove it.
What’s so captivating about K-dramas
For the early boomers of Korean entertainment in India in the late 2000s, the struggle was accessing new content and watching videos at an abysmal 144-240 pixels. Yet, people voraciously consumed hallowed Korean movies and dramas that had initiated the Hallyu wave across Asia.
Movies about star-crossed lovers, such as The Classic, A Moment to Remember, Millionaire’s First Love, or the K-drama Autumn in my Heart, became a staple, with plots often revolving around terminal illness. A college friend of mine used to joke, “Koreans add every element there is to make sure you cry.”
At the heart of it, most romantic Korean stories from the 2010s presented love in an unadulterated form. Triumph of love (or sometimes the failure) over human avarice and other evils has universal resonance, and has thus found many takers in India. Add to this high-production quality, beautiful scenic backgrounds, good soundtracks, and addictive ballads — the perfect mix for a Korean drama is ready. Think — Boys Over Flowers, Secret Garden, That Winter, the Wind Blows, Full House, Winter Sonata, K2, and Healer.
At the close of the new decade, storylines have gotten more complex, older audiences have matured to watching other genres like action, thrillers, and Korean historical dramas — and the rest is taken care of by Netflix’s algorithm.
Slow but steady
While there has undoubtedly been a spurt of interest in Korean cultural content, the foundation for it was laid years ago. India was always a target market to export Korean products. The Korean Cultural Centre India (KCCI), an arm of the Korean Embassy, has been working behind the scenes since the early 2010s, organising K-pop contests, conducting exhibitions on Korean culture, and running a Korean language institute.
Assam’s Priyanka Mazumdar, the 2016 winner of the best vocal award at K-POP World Festival, is now part of the South Korean pop group Z-Girls . In 2017, a dance group from Mizoram called ‘Immortals Army’ went on to win the best dance prize at the K-pop World Festival held in Changwon, South Korea, after winning the India leg of the event hosted by the KCCI.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that when South Korean President Moon Jae-In visited India in 2018, First Lady Kim Jung-sook attended that year’s K-pop contest.
Mainstream media may focus on fandoms of bands like BTS and Blackpink, but lesser-known K-pop bands have been attempting to break into the Indian market for a while now. The Hornbill festival in Nagaland has featured K-pop bands alongside local artists, and so has each edition of the KCCI’s K-pop contest. Last year, the K-pop band KARD, a big name among international fans, held their maiden performance in India.
This is why it’s not surprising that, according to Twitter, India was amongst the top 20 countries that were tweeting the most about K-pop in 2019.
And it doesn’t stop at music or dramas, Korean cosmetic brands have been ubiquitously present in India, so much so that the online store Nykaa has a special section devoted to K-beauty products. Brands like Innisfree and The Face Shop are extremely popular on Nykaa, and Flipkart, and seeing their popularity, Korean luxury beauty brand Sulwhasoo also made its entry into India this year.
With the pandemic-induced spike in the popularity of K-dramas, the visibility of Korean cultural content in India is only set to increase. The K-pop and K-drama subculture in India, comprising thousands of passionate fans, has got a new push.
Views are personal.