K for Crazy
The Korean craze has reached Indian shores.
Aastha Gupta surfaces from the depths.
Do these words sound familiar? If you’re nodding, Chukahae! You’re riding the Korean cultural wave. Wait, did I just use a Korean word? Clearly, this happens when you binge on too many Korean dramas. The COVID pandemic brought into our lives a Hallyu wave (Korean wave) and many of us simply went with it. Of course, it existed even before the pandemic, but the enforced stay-at-home-or-die quarantine helped it grow.
I’d be lying if I say I have remained unaffected by it. My relationship with the ‘K’ word goes back a long way to 2014. My cousin told me to watch a high school romantic drama called ‘Boys over flower’. I still remember how she said, “It’s the best thing you could watch right now.”
Artwork by Sakshi Vishwakarma
I was reluctant to start mostly because of the language barrier but she didn’t give up and said, “If you don’t cry at the end of the show, I’ll be worried that you don’t have a heart.” ‘No pressure,’ I thought, and forgot about it. But she didn’t stop persisting, so I had to give in. ‘Two or three episodes’, I promised myself, ‘and no more of this’. Little did I know seven years down the line, I’d still be hooked to these shows. They were a cold lime soda on a hot afternoon.
I am still grappling with the why.
There are the settings. Every scene seems set in some unearthly paradise.
Stills from Boys Over Flower
There are the characters. The good and the bad come together in seamless harmony but how beautiful everyone looks. And the clothes!
There are the plotlines. What can I say? I’m dreamy-eyed. Anyone can see that this is not the world of Kim Ki-Duk or Park Chan-Wook. No Samaritan Girls or Oldboys here. But whether it’s spring summer autumn winter or spring again, the appeal of K-pop culture holds. In her book The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture, Euny Hong dissected how Gangnam Style was not just a flash in the pan.
Many others of my generation report the same responses though there are some who came in late.
“I started watching Korean dramas during the lockdown on the recommendation of an Instagram influencer. I have been hooked since then. What I like most about them are their short and unique plots with multiple side storylines and also their high production quality. The shows are decent with no profanity, which makes them comfortable to watch for all age groups,” says Diksha Gupta, 25, currently enrolled for an MBA course in Retail and Fashion Merchandise. She says if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, she would have never even thought of watching K-dramas. “But I am glad I did. I usually cringe whenever I watch anything even close to romance, but that doesn’t happen when I watch Korean dramas. I have watched 21 dramas that have all been inspiring and swoon-worthy.”, she adds. And then there are others who started young.
Priyatama Ningthoujam, 23, who lives in Manipur was in Class III when she started watching the dramas. “Nothing surprising about that,” she says, “it’s part of North-East culture to watch K-pop and drama,” Manipur, she says, has had a long association with the K-craze. Korean music was already popular there and in no time entertainment dramas found their way here. “I can recall them being a big hit when I started my schooling. We had shops stocked up with K-Drama and K-pop CDs. We even have our separate TV channel called ISTV, which broadcasts a new episode every day.”
“It's like a fantasy for people, we live through it,” says Priyatama. “I have watched over 200 dramas or maybe more now, and I can understand a bit of their language. Even my food preferences have changed now,” she adds. “Manipur is where the craze started. You guys are just catching up,” she quips.
Still from Crash Landing on you
One could say the Korean craze saw its rebirth during the pandemic. With people having plenty of time at home, they went through all kinds of content on OTT platforms. They began to switch genres in despair until some of them crash landed on the K-word. “I started watching Korean entertainment during the lockdown. My friend recommended I listen to the K-pop band, BTS, and I fell in love with all their songs. I started watching K-dramas in June last year. They have become a huge part of my life now. I enjoy them a lot. They bring so much positivity”, says 22-year-old BFA student, Sri Harshitha.
Social media platforms are home to millions of fan clubs solely dedicated to the lives of K-artists. Asita, 22, an art student who is a member of several such online fan clubs, is glad that people are finally starting to recognize their worth. "Ever since BTS won Best artist for ‘Boy with Luv’ the craze surrounding the Korean entertainment industry is only growing. It’s literally as if BTS paved the way. As for dramas, the stories are delightful and the plot development keeps you at the edge of your seat. Now or later, I mean, it was supposed to come out of the shadows someday, right?” She believes her lifestyle, choices and preferences have strongly been influenced since she became a ‘K’ fan. Every now and then she drops Korean words into her daily conversations, so much so that she believes her mother might actually send her off to South Korea one day.” She adds, “I’m so lost in this world that I dream of being a Korean citizen one day.”
The most common thing that people love about these shows and songs is how perfectly they relate to their lives and make them happy in a way that no other international media product seems to have ever done. “I think they appeal more to Indian audiences because of their ability to take risks with the content while still being easy to relate to,” says Snigdha Sahu, 23, a content creator and part-time language instructor living in Odisha. When I asked her what makes them stand out from other language dramas and music, she says that it is their ability to capture delicate emotions that sets them apart. “When I studied the economic background of South Korea, I learned Korea started producing entertainment content to pay off its debts. So one can say that they deliberately created a media product that could garner a wide audience reach. It seems to have worked in their favour. The quality and diversity of their content is humongous and has only improved over the years,” she adds.
India ranked amongst the top six countries that contributed to the YouTube music video views of K-pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK last year during the lockdown. (Source: YouTube music charts and insights). In the 2020 Spotify India playlist round-up, Pop band BTS ranked as the fourth most-streamed band on the app, and also became the only international band to make it to the list in India. This year when the K-pop band, BTS announced the release of their new English single, ‘Butter’, the BTS army went crazy and started trending ‘AMUL’ all over Twitter. Soon the Indian dairy brand AMUL picked up the trend by featuring them in its cartoon. This is clearly a testament to their growing global popularity.
With peoples’ increasing interest and curiosity, Netflix has cultivated a brand new ‘K’ fanbase due to the thumping number of Korean dramas, films & documentaries it houses. Thanks to it’s oh-so-perfect algorithm, it just knows ‘what you might like’. “Korean dramas were already popular in India, Netflix just capitalized on the growing craze and expanded their fan base from teenagers to young adults'', says Diksha Gupta on Netflix's role in pushing Korean content.
Who better to ask than a person living in the pop city itself? Swarnim from India is a 31-year-old global marketing manager currently living in Seoul. She enjoys watching dramas mostly because of the dreamy Korean men that appear in every drama but don’t exist in actual life. On the growing ‘K’ craze in India, she says, “One reason is the BTS group, the handsome and cute Korean idols and the other is the idealistic characters shown in K-dramas who are so good that you will always fall for the protagonist.” She also points towards the cultural similarity between the two nations as one of the dominant reasons for this excessive craze, “There are many. For instance, there is the usage of the honorific and casual forms of pronouns while speaking to elders and friends.”
In her opinion, it’s the younger generation which forms most of the fan base, not only in India but all over the world. “It’s because the lyrics, clothes and even dance moves- they appeal to young people no matter what language is used. Korea has utilized its soft power effectively to expand its influence across the globe using a language that is not global. Other countries should learn from this,” she adds.
Still from Descendants of the Sun
Still from Something in the Rain
How are female protagonists portrayed in these shows? How essential is their story to the central story? The decoding of the growing Korean craze will serve no purpose without the answers to these questions. Dr. Sunitha Chitrapu, 48, Media Researcher and teacher at the Social Communications Media Department of Sophia Polytechnic (SCM Sophia), Mumbai feels K-Drama presents not only women but even men within patriarchal and socio-economic frameworks. “Popular culture products take a conservative stance to reach the largest possible audiences and not veer too much from the status quo, and K-Drama is very much a part of this profit-making capitalistic enterprise. So yes, there are many stereotypes like the poor girl, the rich guy, the bullying boss, and so on”, she says.
Gunjan Sharma, 23, a media student at SCM Sophia believes, “There are strong characters and some stereotypical ones as well. I find that the newer shows have stronger female characters. However, there is not much diversity and representation in terms of how the actors look.They enforce unrealistic beauty and body standards and this is a common debate in Korea”.
The Korean entertainment industry is expanding, both in terms of content and popularity. While there have been many shows in the past where the female characters usually got sidelined from the main narrative, making it all about the male protagonist's career and goals, things are changing for the better now. With shows like ‘Something in the Rain’, ‘Descendants of the Sun’, ‘Pinocchio’, “Fight for my way”, or the recent “Start-up”, it is no longer about a “woman in the man’s world”. Content is getting experiential, modern and more-open to embracing human complexities in its narratives. The change is happening, and the good thing is that it’s not just in South Korea. The whole world seems to be moving in the direction of empowering the marginalised and the entertainment industries are getting better at reflecting the realities of society.