The genre’s swoon-worthy romance, side-splitting comedy, treacherous villainy, and thrilling fight sequences are some of the many reasons Brown viewers are helping fuel the Korean drama craze.Sarah Khan
Korean drama Crash Landing On You (CLOY) debuted on South Korea’s tvN and on Netflix in December 2019, and immediately crash-landed on the top of the charts. The tale of forbidden love between a South Korean heiress who accidentally winds up across the DMZ and encounters a North Korean soldier — played by superstars Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, respectively — is the third-highest-rated series in South Korean history. And while Korean dramas, commonly known as K-dramas, have long had a legion of die-hard fans across the Indian subcontinent, CLOY marked something of a tipping point for the genre’s popularity in the region: last February, the show even landed in Netflix India’s Top 10.
CLOY has served as a gateway drama for a new generation of K-drama enthusiasts in India, who not only have wreaked havoc on their family’s Netflix algorithms through incessant binging, but are also becoming obsessed with all things Korean. Netflix reported that K-drama viewership increased 370% in India from 2019 to 2020. The Duolingo app saw a 256% growth of Korean language learners in India between March and November. K-pop has long had a sizable fanbase in India, but in 2020, BTS was Spotify India’s fourth most streamed artist, after Bollywood bigwigs like Arijit Singh and Neha Kakkar. These surging numbers appear to closely follow the timeline of the pandemic.
These days, the journey of getting into Korean dramas for the uninitiated often involves five stages: first, denial (“I don’t think I’d be into that”); second, reluctant acceptance (“the Netflix algorithm keeps recommending this to me and there isn’t anything else to watch”); third, disbelief (“wait, it’s really good”); fourth, obsession (“why am I up until 2 a.m. watching this?”); and lastly, evangelism (“you must watch this show”).
“One of my closest friends was watching CLOY initially in lockdown, and we were all laughing and making fun of her, saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re addicted to this K-drama stuff,’” recalled Mumbai content creator Scherezade Shroff. Then a few months later, she found herself with nothing to watch. “I said, ‘Why don't I give it a shot?’ There’s been no looking back.” Shroff has since started the Facebook group Sherry’s K-Drama Club, where nearly 5,000 members, mostly in India, share reviews, recommendations, and gossip. “Imagine, a year ago, I didn't know what a K-drama is, and now I have a K-drama club. The kind of excitement it creates in people is like nothing I've ever seen.”
Pooja Dhingra, founder and CEO of Le 15 Patisserie, had a similar journey during the pandemic. “Honestly, it was such a strange time in my life, with so much uncertainty and unrest, that watching that first K-drama just gave me a sense of stability,” she told me. “As crazy as this may sound, it made my brain slow down and go into a space of calm.” For each hour-plus-long episode, Dhingra was so immersed in following the subtitles that, for once, she couldn’t multitask. “I was just happy I wasn't spending that time doom scrolling.” (Full disclosure: Dhingra has become my K-drama confidante and was instrumental in my own K-drama indoctrination.)
The obsession with these shows can seep into other areas of fans’ lives — even influencing their diets and travel plans. “There's definitely a really big interest suddenly in Korea and Korean culture,” added Shroff. “A lot of people want to travel to Korea now. And you get so sucked into the lifestyle — I don't think I've eaten the amount of ramen I've eaten in the last year in my entire life. Ordering kimchi was a random, sporadic thing, but now it’s a staple in my groceries. You end up learning so much about Korean culture from K-dramas, that even if you've just watched seven, eight dramas, you know the gist of daily life.”
The characters’ chic wardrobes are also a big draw. “Korean drama fashion is exciting but modest,” said Arti Gupta, cofounder of personal shopping service StyleNook.in. “A lot of my clients want to look smart and sexy without too much skin show[ing], and Korean fashion hits that point very well.” Many of Gupta’s clients have lately been requesting looks inspired by CLOY — in particular, she’s sold hundreds of hairclips like the ones worn by Seo Ji-hye, who plays Seo Dan, the fiancée of the North Korean soldier.
And it’s not just South Asian women who are fans. “CLOY is truly a specimen of perfect storytelling. The writing, acting, music are pitch-perfect — even moments that feel corny come to life in a way that really delivers on the sensibility of a refined rom-com,” said Raheel Khursheed, cofounder of Laminar Global. “It really contextualizes North Korea in a way nothing else has, beyond the American PR machine stereotypes of nukes and Kim Jong-un.”
This surge in interest from Indians hasn’t escaped the notice of Koreans. “As far as I know, and hearing from many sources, Korean culture has become a major sub-culture in Indian mainstream society,” agreed KangHun Kim, head of PR and media at the Korean Culture Centre India in Delhi. The center’s Instagram account has been promoting online K-pop dance parties, kimchi tutorials, virtual tours of Korea, and language classes.
Of course, the wide-reaching influence of Korean pop culture isn’t new: the Chinese term Hallyu describes the wave of South Korean entertainment that has been steadily conquering the world. The trend, it turns out, was by design: a large-scale cultural marketing strategy that’s resulted in K-pop dominating global charts, K-dramas and films dominating TV screens, and K-beauty dominating our skincare routines.
“If you think about global media outside Hollywood, very few countries create content that other people want to watch. Chinese shows or Indian shows, they tend to be domestic-focused — the market is bigger, so they don't really need to make things appealing outside of those countries,” said Seung Bak, who co-founded the erstwhile streaming platform DramaFever, which focused on East Asian dramas, in 2009. “Korea is a small country — there's only [about] 50 million people living there — so the way they construct these products, these stories, is almost purpose-built to a broader audience, an export-oriented mindset.”
DramaFever’s research affirmed the success of Korea’s global outlook — at one point, about 80% of its 3.5 million viewers were not Asian. “By and large, the Korean media industry has deliberately and consciously created a media product that has a broader appeal: the production value is really, really high; there are beautiful people; the cinematography and overall story flow is very polished,” Bak said.
While CLOY may have introduced a new wave of locked-down viewers to K-dramas — and to Hyun Bin’s cheekbones — there are die-hard fans across South Asia who’ve counted Hyun Bin among their favorite oppas for years. Zee5 and MX Player even carry Hindi-dubbed versions of K-dramas, including older hits like Boys Over Flowers, Descendants of the Sun, and Hyun Bin’s 2010 show Secret Garden. “India already had a lot of Korean drama watchers, and this is no surprise, mostly from northeast India,” said Paroma Chakravarty, a podcast editor in Kolkata. “Northeast India has virtually no representation in mainstream Indian fare — they had that one Priyanka Chopra movie, Mary Kom. That’s it.” When the state of Manipur banned Indian films in 2000, the Korean entertainment industry seized the opportunity to make inroads, and filled the void.
As K-pop grew in popularity across India, more Korean industries — from television to skincare — began seeing India as a viable market. But before Netflix, being a K-drama fan was no easy feat. “People had to go search out these dramas,” remembered Chakravarty. “If I wanted to watch it, I had to work for it... you can't be a fan when you don't have regular access.”
Then, 2020 brought with it the perfect storm: Netflix began adding K-dramas in larger numbers than before and aggressively promoting them in India, and suddenly, everyone was stuck at home with plenty of idle time to follow the Netflix algorithm in new directions. “It became a situation where people who were almost at the edge, who were the right demographic to be drama watchers, suddenly had access,” said Chakravarty. “The time was right, the people were ready, and Netflix doubled down.”
In 2017, Chakravarty teamed up with two of her fellow longtime K-drama fans to start a podcast on the subject, Dramas Over Flowers. Her co-hosts are Anisa Khalifa, based in North Carolina, and Saya, based in the U.K. The three connected online over their enthusiasm for the shows, but have never met in real life. “When I first met Paroma and Saya, we were all writing for the same K-drama review website, and we instantly bonded over being South Asian fans of K-dramas,” said Khalifa. “We didn’t see that represented anywhere.”
Both Chakravarty and Khalifa were drawn into the fandom by the same gateway drama: 2007’s Coffee Prince, a gender-bending rom-com. According to Khalifa, “It sucks you in so much, that I just never looked back after that. I was like, ‘This is it, this is the stuff, inject it into my veins.’” In the decade since, Khalifa has gone on to learn how to read, write, and speak Korean; in her Duke University thesis, she examined the postcolonial partitions of India and Korea through popular film and TV in both countries — with an entire section devoted to CLOY.
Dramas Over Flowers’s audience has primarily been from the U.S., with a strong contingent of East Asian followers. In the last year, however, there’s been a sharp rise in listeners from India.
But it’s not just the newfound access to K-dramas or the abundance of screen time in 2020 that have Indian audiences so enthralled. Part of the appeal of K-dramas, which is exemplified in CLOY, is their ability to pack a multitude of genres into one slick package — something Bollywood has been doing par excellence for decades. Swoon-inspiring romance, side-splitting comedy, treacherous villainy, and action-packed fight sequences — no need to choose, K-dramas encompass them all.
“From whatever I have binged on so far, oftentimes it feels like the elevated-TV-execution of Korean dramas refines what Bollywood aims to do, even while it borrows from Bollywood playbook,” said Khursheed. “The themes are similar, just rendered at a pace that feels right for the plot, with requisite character development.”
This all-in-one approach is one that audiences across vast swaths of the east can appreciate. “From the Philippines to Turkey and in almost every nation in between,” said Supriya Nair, journalist and editor of Fifty Two, “we are all used to popular entertainment that doesn't conform to a single genre, where you get high-low, comic-tragic, sentimental-literary, all in one serving. So we know how to read K-dramas better than Western audiences do.”
That said, Nair is surprised to see K-dramas making serious inroads in India — since the country has traditionally embraced entertainment imports with more similar beauty ideals. “I’d have assumed the racial difference would be interpreted as a big barrier for mass Indian audiences,” she said. “[It’s] a problem Turkish or Pakistani soaps do not have — their beauty ideals are the same as those of our dominant mainland consumers.”
But cultural similarities transcend many of these differences: family dynamics, respect for elders, gender roles, class divides, academic challenges, the history of colonization. Many of these elements infuse K-drama narratives, resonating with subcontinental audiences. (CLOY even references a line from the 2013 Hindi film The Lunchbox: “Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station.”)
“The way they live with their parents well into their 30s, the whole overbearing mother situation, taking off their shoes and wearing special house slippers — the similarities popped up to me instantly,” said Shroff. “Korean mothers portrayed in shows are like Indian mothers: constantly invested in children's lives, wanting to feed everyone.”
And in CLOY’s tale of one people torn apart by an impenetrable border, many were reminded of South Asia’s own schisms. “It’s a fantasy about Partition, and a future beyond Partition, that Hindi cinema could never make,” said Nair. “It made the pain of separation and the longing for unity very personal and very explicit.”
K-dramas have also traditionally been wholesome affairs. Many follow an unspoken formula that typically entails a chaste first kiss around episode eight, with barely any touching and certainly no tongue, and things don’t get much steamier than that. “I got tired of watching American shows where, as soon as they acknowledge[d] attraction, they immediately slept with each other,” pointed out Chakravarty. “I found it really refreshing that in Asian dramas, they really emphasize the slow building of kinship...physical closeness is something you build, just like emotional closeness is something you build, and Korean dramas really take their time with showing the awkwardness of initial relationships and showing the slow building of trust.”
So how do longtime drama watchers — the ones who once scoured the Internet for new series, fed Korean blogs through Google translate to stay on top of industry news, and even learned Korean to follow episodes that were available only sans subtitles — feel about newly minted fans (like me)?
“I grumble about new drama watchers coming in and try to pitch theories about drama trends,” said Chakravarty with a laugh. “I find the [K-drama] fandom is inclusive and more okay with changes than other fandoms. But, the fact of the matter is, it’s not like dramaland belongs to anyone.”
Sarah Khan is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and many others.
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