A look at how K-dramas are building a bridge between India and South Korea
Rich man-meets-poor woman, a cross-border love story or the classic underdog tale – replace banyan trees with cherry blossoms, the Ganges with Han River and what one gets is a Korean drama with all the themes popular in the Indian space.
Respect for elders, showing affection through food and navigating social disapproval for falling in love with a younger guy are some of the other themes that find a resonance in Indian culture.
While the Korean wave or ‘Hallyu’ dates back to the 1990s, the increased penetration of Internet and streaming services in the last few years has made South Korean stars like Hyun Bin and Ha Ji-won of ‘Secret Garden’, Son Ye-jin and Jung Hae-in of ‘Something in the Rain’, Gong Yoo of ‘Coffee Prince’ and ‘Goblin’, Lee Min-ho of ‘Boys Over Flowers’ and Park Seo-joon of ‘Fight For My Way’ household names in India.
Experts say Korean content, especially with their films acing the crime, thriller and zombie genres, has been the talk of the international film circuit for decades and now courtesy ‘Parasite’, the first film from the country to win an Oscar, it has started reaching to the Indian masses.
‘Parasite’, the 2019 twisted class satire charted history at this year’s Academy Awards by winning four trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho.
According to film journalist-critic Gajendra Singh Bhati: “Our filmmakers started going out for international film festivals and came across Korean films. Twenty years ago, access was still limited. Their shows started gaining popularity after the Internet got better in India with the coming of streamers like Netflix.”
South Korea didn’t really exist, at least for the majority of Indians for whom world cinema is often limited to the Los Angeles-based Hollywood, until the 2020 Oscars.
But Bhati noted, be it Salman Khan’s ‘Bharat’ (Ode to My Father) or the John Abraham-starrer ‘Rocky Handsome’ (The Man from Nowhere) Bollywood has often bet on remakes of Korean films.
Cinebuffs had followed Bong’s true crime thriller ‘Memories of Murder’ when it released in 2003 but the common public was largely unaware about “which Hindi film was lifted from where” due to inaccessibility, he added.
In 2012, South Korean musician PSY went viral worldwide with the song ‘Gangnam Style’.
But even before Korean music became popular in India, with now the boy band BTS ruling the hearts, the K-pop craze first hit the country’s Northeastern states of Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya.
Filmmaker and senior journalist Utpal Borpujari says K-dramas have been popular for 20 years now in the region, especially in Manipur, after insurgent groups banned Hindi films in the state.
TV channels had also followed suit, and as people needed entertainment, pirated DVDs of Korean music and films hit the market to feed the want.
“In Imphal, roadside vendors used to sell pirated DVDs of these shows and films two decades ago,” Borpujari recalls.
The similarity in looks “due to the Mongoloid race may be a reason for people in the Northeast to identify with K-dramas” but their increasing popularity in other parts of the country indicates that these shows “look very Indian” in their mood and
“If we would have gone purely by looks in the case of the Northeast, theoretically Chinese and Japanese shows should have also done well. But only Korean shows are popular because of the emotions. Also they look fresh so people get hooked to them very easily. Even if it’s a usual boy-meets-girl romance, the stories are innovative and unique,” Borpujari said.
Action-romance drama ‘Descendants of the Sun’, whose Hindi dubbed version premiered in India in 2017 on Zindagi channel, was quite popular in India with its love story between a Korean Special Forces captain (Song Joong-ki) and a surgeon (Song Hye-kyo) as they faced dangers in a war-torn country.
“More people have started exploring content from Korea thanks to streamers and websites. Post ‘Parasite’, there has been a huge interest in the country. Only the avid film lovers had heard about Bong Joon-ho, but now everybody knows him,” adds
For event manager Amanda Rebeiro, K-dramas have been her “happy place” for the last four years. Rebeiro, 26, says South Korea is a beautiful country and their dramas make sure to put that point forward. “They also have the ability to make fun of old tropes, like a woman showing her disapproval by splashing a glass of water on a potential daughter-in-law’s face. No doubt Korean shows are full of drama, but they are softer in comparison to Indian soaps. For one, we don’t get to see a person being slapped 10 times from 10 different directions,” she adds.
Another reason, Rebeiro notes, for the popularity of these shows is “our shared Asian culture”. “Many of them are based on young working people who navigate life either with each other or on their own. Also we, as Asians, are in love with the ‘’concept of love’’ – be it between parents, siblings, friends or lovers,” she says.
Shreya Mishra, a first-year student of Korean Department at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says she was completely alien to the concept of K-dramas, but taking up the language for higher studies last year prompted her to explore the uncharted territory.
“K-dramas have helped me become more familiar with the language. Gradually, they made me entirely drop the Hindi and English content,” says Mishra.
Apart from the beautiful landscapes, the possibility of the reunification of North and South Korea explored in the hit dramas ‘Crash Landing On You’ and ‘The King 2 Hearts’, also appeals to the 20-year-old.
“It hits home as India and Pakistan are also in conflict. North and South Korea were born of war, but there is a Unification Ministry working towards the reunification,” she says, adding it is good to have “hope”.
Dhananjay Sat Pal Singh, another K-drama fan, says it would be wrong to dismiss these shows as just romance and comedy. Within their usual format of 16 episodes, the dramas explore thrillers, politics, time travel, criminal investigation, family dynamics and historical stories.
“They also have so many sub genres like historical fantasy, time travel and folklore. Their thrillers are at a whole different level. Recently, I watched a fantastic series called ‘Strangers’. Let’s not forget ‘Kingdom’, it’s a superb drama. It’s all about content,” says the 25-year-old merchant navy officer.
Earlier this year, director Bong famously talked about overcoming the “one inch-long subtitle barrier” for content other than Hollywood. Singh is one of the many Indians who have taken to South Korean dramas and movies.
“Subtitles don’t matter once you get used to them. In fact, you tend to learn the language. We need to accept that the world is full of languages, and I think, it will do us a lot more good,” he adds.