According to a Netflix report, between 2019 and 2020, viewership of Korean dramas (hereon, K-dramas) in India had increased by 370%. Between March 2020 and March 2021, six K-dramas, including the second season of Kingdom, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, and Crash Landing On You, were on Netflix’s “Top 10 Trending” list. Netflix partnered with K-pop band Blackpink last year to produce a promotional documentary for their album. Netflix India even put out an 8-minute video explaining this phenomenon, called “Hallyu” which means the spread of Korean culture — via food, music, dramas, and even a 7-step skincare routine. K-drama is a mere thread from the rich fabric of Korean culture some of us have tugged on. Netflix India has in response increased their investment on Korean content. This is only the beginning.
But this is by no means a prestige-Netflix phenomenon. In August last year, Dish TV, in an industry-first initiative, launched ‘Korean Drama Active’, where users could have access to Korean drama content dubbed in Hindi, at ₹1.3 per day.
In March this year, MX Player, India’s largest streaming platform, 47% of whose audience comes from the Hindi belt, launched V-Desi. It’s a program where every week they put out international shows — Korean, Japanese, Ukranian, Turkish, French, Spanish — dubbed into Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. This has been a project in the making for a while, bolstered by MX Player’s initial experiments with dubbed K-drama two years ago. They saw the early signs of success with I Am Not A Robot and Two Cops, and accelerated their pipeline, partnering with Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) and Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) to get the licensing of K-dramas to then translate, dub, and finalize a product that is injected like drip-feed, every week, into the veins of streaming circulation.
The Allure Of K-Drama
In the mid-aughts in India, “K-drama” would be used to describe Ekta Kapoor’s K-serial empire — Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kaahin Kissii Roz, Kahiin to Hoga. All wildly successful, drunk in the limitless possibilities of drama, including death, rebirth, kidnapping, face-lifts, and hidden twins, they coincided with the penetration of television into interior India. But then, there was suddenly a cultural swerve. While some of those who grew up watching these shows graduated, aesthetically and narratively, to a more coherent kind of entertainment, the yearning for exaggeration remained. Additionally, a younger population was coming into their own, searching for drama that was both relatable yet aspirational, kitsch yet climactic, bizarre yet beautiful.
With more than 50% of India’s population under the age of 25, India has offered itself as a demand producing machine for Korean culture.
Globally, the United States was receding from its cultural monopoly. Fatima Bhutto in her book New Kings Of The World noted how that vacuum was being filled by Turkish Dizi, K-pop, and Bollywood. Korea, specifically post the 1997-98 Financial Crisis, had taken the quantum leap to export culture as a product to counter the balance of payment, and emerged as the most translatable, aspirational, and thus most popular of the lot.
In India specifically, the uptake among the young has accelerated over the past decade. With more than 50% of India’s population under the age of 25, India has offered itself as a demand producing machine for Korean culture.
This seepage of Hallyu came in initially from the North-East which had begun to look Eastwards for representation. M. Rajshekhar, a journalist, recently compiled his on-the-ground reporting from various states into a book Despite The State. His book opens in Mizoram, where he charts the ascension of Korean culture. It all began in the late 2000s with K-drama, dubbed in Mizo, being shown regularly on cable television channels. The dubbing-craze had started in 2004, when Kasautii Zindagii Kay, written for the Hindi heartland, dubbed into Mizo, became a runaway hit, its serialized transcript being printed in local magazines. In the neighbouring Manipur, however, where Bollywood and Hindi satellite channels were banned by the Manipuri separatists, the local population turned to K-drama for entertainment. Pirated CDs of Korean dramas were a staple in any local market.
“They look like us. Their facial structures are clean. Their plots are conservative, ones that Protestants and Catholics can relate to. Even the way they talk, a slight musical tone, is similar to ours.” — An interviewee from M Rajshekhar’s book Despite The State
The switch to Korean drama in Mizoram might have happened around 2009, when to fill air time, a local cable company played a Korean drama, “When it switched to news, its switchboard was said to have lit up with viewers calling to ask when the serial would resume.” Some people also date this phenomenon to 2001 when South Korea in its bid to impose its soft-power, had one of its channels freely available across North-East India.
Either way by 2015, the Korean craze had reached a fever pitch, where “youngsters were mimicking characters from Seoul’s films and television soaps.” Hairstylists and furniture sellers were lifting the latest trends from these shows. Korean phrases and words seeped into the local vocabulary.
What is most interesting about this cultural uptake are the reasons offered. One of Rajshekhar’s interviewees explains the allure of K-drama, “They look like us. Their facial structures are clean. Their plots are conservative, ones that Protestants and Catholics can relate to. Even the way they talk, a slight musical tone, is similar to ours.” This yearning to seek in art a mirror of one’s life is understandable. Additionally, the strict Korean Broadcasting rules means that they cannot have the kind of intimate scenes we see across Indian streaming today. At most there are light kisses. This served well for the Mizos, around 87% of whom are Christian.
When I asked Mansi Shrivastav, Head of Content Acquisition at MX Player, what the possible allure of K-drama could be to a Hindi heartland audience, she noted how it is not the racial but aspirational affiliations that their younger audience, across gender, are taking to, “A lot of the stories are romantic, set in real life situations. You are almost escaping into things you have probably thought about or fantasized about — whether it is relationship dramas, or two people coming from different economic classes. The relationship drama angle is strong and well portrayed in these shows. At the end of the day it’s the emotions that are traveling. Yes, the faces are different, the looks, style, feel of it is different. It’s aspirational as well, I’m sure. But the main thing that is traveling is the emotional aspect of it — the breakups, the struggle of career, told in beautiful settings.”
The enduring and engaging success of K-dramas is that that love for them doesn’t stop with a specific show. It snowballs into a pursuit for Korean culture among the fans.
The other possible reason for its success is the vacuum in the romance genre in India. In cinema as much as in streaming this lacking has been noted widely. Shrivastav too noted this gap in our storytelling, “[K-dramas] are addressing the kind of stories that are not being offered here, where a lot of our stories are focusing on crime and thrillers. The relationship factor is the top factor as far as relatability is concerned.”
The beauty of the K-drama is its capacity to weave romance into various genres — medical procedural, corporate conspiracies, family drama, fantasy, adventure, national security. The trappings of masala are there too but dressed up in sharp production design and crisp, well-silhouetted outfits, the aesthetic is elevated and striking. Story-wise though, it isn’t far off from the K-dramas of Ekta Kapoor. Take Crash Landing Onto Your, often cited as a good entry point into the dizzying abundance of the K-catalogue. In the very first episode, the makers weave a story of feminist ambition, family intrigue, cross border love, all brought together effortlessly within with the help of a supernatural element — the cyclone that transports the female lead across the border as she is paragliding. On paper, the exaggeration is comical. But in treatment, it’s economical, sharp, and unyielding to traditional dramatic devices like sharp zooms or a deafening background score.
But to translate content produced by a different culture creates a striking dilemma — how much of the authenticity must be retained, and how much of it must be translated into the local context. There are even gradations among the local context where local dialects switch every few districts, or from colloquial to literary.
One part of this is achieved by keeping the lingo “appealing to the young, between 18 and 25,” as MX Player is doing. What is more interesting to note in the dubs of these shows is that despite changing the local references, they don’t change the names of the main characters. When I asked Shrivastav why MX didn’t think of translating the names with the references, she noted that this was a conscious choice, “We did initially toy with the idea of changing names. But then we realized that some of these shows are so popular that there is an entire universe on the internet that you can discover in terms of shows and characters. So it doesn’t really make sense to convert the name. It is easier for the audience to search about the show.” Keeping the Korean names, Shrivastav notes, hasn’t affected their viewership or relevance.
The enduring and engaging success of K-dramas is that that love for them doesn’t stop with a specific show. It snowballs into a pursuit for Korean culture among the fans — the ramyun (Korean spicy noodles), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), mandu (dumplings) and soju (alcohol), learning the language, adopting the wardrobe, powdering themselves porcelain in the same glow of their beloved Korean stars. These are all the signs that it’s not just a show, or a few shows, but a wholesale culture that has arrived.