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Indians have a new K in their lives. Not Karan Johar, Ekta Kapoor but Korean culture factory

K-pop, K-dramas, K-beauty — 2020 became the year India embraced the soft power of Korea.

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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.

Also read: Salman Khan, Rajinikanth, K-Pop — how fandom is shaping our pop cultural world

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.

Also read: Parasite Oscar win says a lot about South Korea

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.

Also read: K-pop fans a growing tribe in India — they hold concerts, do charity, run stores

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.

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  1. The best gift of lockdown this year is to know about k drama k pop band korean culture it feels like my is incomplete without these.i am so grateful that I get to know about them…..and I want to know more about them throughout whole life while enjoying
    the gift of knowing.for me south korean people has the great sense of human emotions and ofcourse what art actually is.thank you

    • Gori chamdi dekha nahi bharatiya fisal gaye .
      It better to know your own country ‘ s culture , fashions , craft work n most popular think is peace of our nature .
      So cold bharatiya hamesha dusro ke pichhe bhagte hai . It is good to gain your knowledge .
      Bharat me bahut kuch hai jane ke liye .
      Every one syas India is market a large market .
      Vishwa Guru se market ban gaye 🤦

  2. I remember getting into kpop for the first time during my first yr of my bachelor’s degree clg back in 2011 when one of my assamese best friend made me listen to one and only THE KING, Taeyang’s Only Look at Me and Bigbang’s We Belong Together and omg absolutely fell in love with them and taeyang literally left me mesmerized wih that beautiful song (still one of the best kpop songs ever) and instantly became a VIP and never looked back and started listening some more of kpop but could not so much at that time cuz of limited internet but did also checked out 2ne1, snsd and SuJu and then from 2013 started watching kdramas ofcourse first one was boys over flowers and then really watched a lot more thanks to my friends in hostel who download and share with anybody who asked for kdramas and it was only in 2014 i started getting into kpop a bit more and got into exo, shinee, wonder girls Miss A, 2pm, etc and in 2016 got into kpop a lot more actively with Got7, twice, monsta x, winner, bts, etc

  3. Kudos to K- dramas,music, fashion,eateries etc. Our music directors have to learn a lot from K dramas. Generally, the dialogues in our drama are accompanied by distracting background music. K dramas have clear dialogues without background noise. Now, this K culture is highly appreciated along the length and breadth of our country. The people, irrespective of their age are enjoying this new arrival. They dearly wanted a change of this sort. However, I am personally alarmed. Are we opening the welcome gates to an unknown and charming guest? In the long run, will our culture be under mutation? Will our industries be affected? Will it be another made in China version? Is this a slow, steady and an intelligent ride on us? I hope and pray that my fears may be false. Let us be cautious.

  4. Ok so there are many k-boos in India since a lot of years me myself is a 5 year k-boo and it’s not just 2020. Now 2020 is the year when our kpop bands decide to make our country a part of their wold tours and started interviewing here. Ig
    ~ a army , exol, once, igot7,and etc

  5. I’m a big fan of EXO as a Exol I’m very happy that my fav. group leader Suho visit in india in 2015 . And I love kdrama on mx player my fav is song joongki and suzy

  6. Why You Don’t Attention Lee Min Ho
    Lee Min Ho İs King Of Kdrama And He Has Wonderful Dramas Like *Boys Over Flowers * *City Hunter **Heirs**The Legend Of The Blue Sea *And When He Back From Military The King :Eternal Monarch Was Shining Like Star İn KDrama World.
    İf You Dont Tag Him İ Write İt Too Much.

  7. The Hallyu Wave has always been present in the North Eastern States and Darjeeling area since the early 2000s. It’s just that the rest of India caught up with it a little late and I do believe the lockdown played a very big role in solidifying everything Korean starting from Kdramas to Kpop

  8. Finally true for there is so much to learn. Sometimes it’s like moral stories and fairy tales.with pandemic becoming movie like in real life the fantasy neatness and freshness kdrama brings makes it popular. The female and male characters are strong and all charecters are well defined and finite set of episodes inline India soap operas running for years make the not understandable language popular to core among youth. Indian media poor quality and low popularity also caused people to re-evaluate relatability. Kdrama has family love culture and comedy with amazing narration and simple human emotions to wild imagination and twist plots all in one packed
    I watched
    Crash landing on you
    Iteawon class
    Boys over flowers
    Something in the rain
    What’s wrong with secretary Kim
    She was pretty
    My secret garden
    It’s ok not to be ok
    Decendents of the sun
    Strong girl bong soon
    The king eternal monarch
    Legend of blue sea
    Fight for my way
    I am not a robot
    Ms hamurabi
    Seeing startup

    I watched cdrama put your head on my shoulders

    English queens gambit
    The good place
    Emily in Paris

    Trust me nothing like kdrama each one is fantasy and yet relavent

  9. Yes it’s so true I listen to kpop songs everyday and wach kdramas and BTS is my life , I’ve lurned nothing from Bollywood but I love kpop and I know everything about kpop and now it’s my culture, kamsahamnida from Anuja in Mumbai

  10. I am from a remote area of West Bengal. I also came to know the world of hallyu in 2017 with the drama ‘secret romance’. Now k-drama and k-pop is one of the primary source of entertainment of mine.

  11. It’s a request . please please please watch “MY MISTER” . This is the best K-Drama ever. It is just human emotions journey, so beautiful. Brilliant acting by bouth IU and Lee Sun Gyun, and I will guarantee you that you will fall in love with voice of Lee Sun Gyun.

    • I entirely agree. One of the best TV Drama I have seen. This includes Hindi, English, Turkish, Pakistani Dramas. Story and screenplay is absolutely top class.

  12. I’m very happy that they are gaining name in India. And I’m also a k pop fan.I love my country and Korea too.Also I’m excited for those korean related things from k pop to korean products. Love you 🇰🇷 and India 🇮🇳 too.But in my region why k pop is not popular…

  13. I wish STAY(STRAY KIDS FANDOM) increase in India
    SKZ is my Favourite group forever
    You make Stray Kids Stay
    Lots of love from India

  14. yes very true as this lockdown brings a revolution in kdrama lovers life. m a big fan of kpop and kdrama since 2013 bt now seeing the popularity in india m on high sky coz when i heard sumone talking abt BTS i feel like ‘really’??? Hope this will bring a gud change in youth lives as there culture inspire to luk at the world diffrently.. 😘😘😘

    • Hey me too an ARMY SINCE 2016.
      In 2016 they were not that popular and now I think all in the country knows them. I’m really happy to hear it. And now I’m having one dream that is to become a kpop idol (or doctor because if I didn’t get it) I really wish if I become a kpop idol but I’m not sure because I’m a Keralian Indian but with fair and white skin and also with super talents in singing and dancing and even in violin and guitar. I want to become a kpop idol. I wish my dream come true but firstly I need to graduate school (10th std you know ) with high marks so that my mom would allow me to audition. Please pray for me 🙏🙏 gamsahabnida…oh I mean thank-you..

  15. I’ve been a BTS fan since 2018 and I’m really happy to find many fans now a days and they got much fame too.they presents us wonderful music with amazing lyrics that you can’t help falling in love with them.they broke barriers for other groups too
    But you can find many Indians being hypocrites which is a bit sad to hear
    Nevertheless we love them for everything they give us

  16. The more I come to know about Korean culture,the curious i become ,not to mention k-pop & k drama have also become an addiction,k drama r the best & my favorite is descendants of the sun

  17. I’m glad Indian Media is realizing what’s going on worldwide and now are feeling the importance of covering good stuff that has already gone global but India is still behind . Kpop and BTS. Cover more news regarding this

  18. I’m so happy after reading this news about k pops ,
    k dramas, k culture, k learners are increasing in India, and also hope that India Government will also take a step about the education of Korean language in all the Schools of India as compulsory. I hope, many peoples are also agreeing with me. Just waiting for the day when our Government Mr. Narendra Modi will announce this news of Korean cultures, K dramas and Korean language as a subject in all school.! Very true news! I appreciate it! 감사합니다!

    • @Priyanka Gupta : Korean language as a compulsory subject ? As an optional subject I can understand, but a compulsory subject ? You might be a k weeb , but others are not. Indian education system does not need compulsory Korean rather it needs massive improvements in pedagogy of maths, sciences and social sciences

    • Really??!!! You want Korean as compulsory language! Being a fan is fine but you guys take things too far. Infact as for culture too, I don’t think that Korean culture is all goody goody. Visit the country, talk to common people or read news. You will realise. Just like India is not Bollywood. Appreciate the art but be rational!

  19. Korean drama; movies and their stories are way more attractive than Indian Tv serials. They only have few episodes but thwy are awesome. I like their story concepts way more than any Tv series .

  20. Yes it’s true all Korean related things from K-pop to Korean products everything is spreading in India.And I myself a k pop fan. I’m happy that they are gaining name in India.As an Indian I love my culture more than anything but I after I got introduced to k pop along with India Korea also became one of my favorite country. And in our Northeast Indian region Korea is very famous.

    • You are absolutely right & i can completely relate with u ,the more we get to know about Korean culture,the more we get fascinated by Korean culture be it k-pop or kdrama or the k traditions

    • Yes it’s true. I’m a northeastern girl myself and I’m a huge k-pop fan tbh. Many of my friends are also k-pop fans. K-pop and k-culture are really famous in here. They are gaining popularity in vast numbers all over India. I love India and & Indian culture alongside Korea.

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