How K-pop and Korean drama had their breakthrough moment in India amid the pandemic


On August 7, Soumyata Narula heard her first BTS track called Jump. “Imagine! It had to be the seventh day of the month,” she points out excitedly, referring to the significance of the number “7” with respect to the Korean pop band comprising seven members that, mildly put, is a global sensation.

Narula, a 39-year-old media professional, never imagined herself becoming an ARMY — short for Adorable Representative MC for Youth, a term the K-pop band’s fans use to describe themselves. She is not even that fond of music, except for a few old songs, like her caller tune — Tumne Mujhe Dekha sung by Mohd. Rafi.

“Yet, I fell for BTS, and I fell hard,” she says. Narula credits her two younger friends, part of ARMY, for introducing her to BTS and relentlessly tutoring her about their origin story. But what finally got her to embrace ARMYhood, she says, is the ongoing pandemic.

“Hand to heart, these seven boys got me through the pandemic,’ says Narula who stays alone in her Mumbai apartment. BTS songs give her the strength to combat loneliness during these universally trying times, she says.

While their beats and backstory had her intrigued, it is a chance Googling of Jump’s lyrics and finding depth in the song that brought her over to the ARMY’s side. Fully entrenched into all the BTS-related content available on the internet right now, Narula says the pandemic inadvertently brought this companion into her life. “If not for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have had the time to read all about them.”

The breakthrough moment

K-pop, as well as Korean dramas, have been a prominent subculture among India’s GenZ and millennials for the last couple of years now. Part of the Korean cultural wave, called Hallyu, they seem to have had their biggest breakthrough moment in India during the ongoing pandemic though, as more people found the time and inclination to explore different kinds of content until they landed on something that offered them the perfect mental escape from the anxiety of the times we are in.

In the last three months, India has climbed a few ranks to be among the top five or six countries contributing to YouTube music-video views of K-pop bands like BTS and BLACKPINK. On JioSaavn’s music-streaming platform, BTS was ranked 68th in January with approximately 780,000 streams amongst audiences that listen to English music. “Since then, the group has moved up to the 8th spot in October 2020 with over 2.3 million streams,” a company spokesperson tells ET. This is significant because unlike Spotify, a popular international music-streaming platform for international music where BTS has consistently garnered record-breaking listens, local platforms like JioSaavn have only just begun ramping up their K-pop library.

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Last month, Samsung India rolled out a digital campaign featuring audio-visual clips from BTS’s latest hit track Dynamite to introduce Galaxy S20 fan edition mobile phones. On October 11, the campaign went live on TV across Hindi-English entertainment channels. To some members of Indian ARMY — a community of several thousands, if not more; their favourite K-pop band getting this kind of recognition at a national scale was a cause for celebration. Many posted about it on their social media accounts, too.

But that’s not all the recognition they’ve got from the mainstream world. In April, singer-actor Diljit Dosanjh tweeted about being a fan of BTS’s live concerts. Important to note here that Dosanjh has, on several occasions, shared that he derives the most satisfaction from audience reactions during his live shows.

Last month, actor Tiger Shroff posted a choreography video inspired by BTS’s Dynamite track on his Instagram account, fetching hearts from several other stars from the tinsel town. Popular content creators like Kusha Kapila have also spoken about diving deep into the world of K-pop and K-drama in the last few months, inspiring their followers to follow into their footsteps.

The hype got YouTuber Ankush Bahuguna to do a BTS reaction video recently, where he admitted that he bought into the whole vibe even though he didn’t understand a word.

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The language barrier

Unlike content consumption trends of the west that heavily influence Indian pop culture, language becomes a big barrier for Hallyu wavemakers. Interestingly, there’s also been a huge spike in the number of active learners of Korean language in the country in the last six months. Language-learning platform Duolingo saw just an 11% increase in Korean learners in India between October 2019 and February 2020. “Through the month of March, the increase is 98%. But between March and now, we’ve seen a 256% increase in Korean learners in India,” says Michaela Kron, lead PR and social media manager at the company.

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There are several other data points that point to India’s growing interest in Korean culture.

Weverse, an app that allows fans to interact with their favourite K-pop idols has seen its monthly active users (MAUs) on Google Play Store in India grow by 64% between October 2019 and February this year. From March to September, the MAUs have gone up by 115% as per estimated data available with web analytics platform Similar Web.

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Fighting the dark side

The more people explore the various aspects of Korean culture, the more they get acquainted with issues like the unrealistic beauty standards prominent in this world. However, most prefer to focus on the positives, and there are plenty of those.

For instance, Bahuguna appreciates how “BTS normalises the idea that makeup is genderless very beautifully. It’s not very often that you see a boy band be so unapologetic about their love for fashion and makeup,” he says.

In the last six months, Bahuguna hasn’t got even half of the YouTube views he fetched on his first BTS reaction video. Pretty much anything associated with BTS is bound to get people instant traction and many try to cash in that clout for social cred. But Bahuguna knows ARMY is quick to catch what’s not genuine. “Their songs are so catchy, I totally get why people are so obsessed with them,” he says.

The dramatic rise

K-drama-watching veterans from India would recall seeing ads from unheard of foreign brands while binge-watching their favourite Korean title on Rakuten Viki, a US-based Korean-drama-dominated streaming platform.

Till a year ago, these ads were just filing up inventory. Today, a Viki user from affluent urban India is likely to hit “Skip Ad” on a local ad, like the latest Cred campaign featuring celebs like Anil Kapoor, Madhuri Dixit, and most recently Govinda, failing their auditions for the said campaign. Rakuten Viki, that saw its overall traffic from India take a 3% hit between October 2019 and February this year, witnessed the site traffic climb up by 36% in the month of March, and another 46% over the last six months, as per ET’s analysis of estimated data available on web analytics firm SimilarWeb.

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At MX Player, “the Hindi-dubbed versions of K-dramas are catering to an audience set of an English movie channel,” says Karan Bedi, the streaming platform’s CEO, in order to give perspective on the size and scope for Korean content in India. (Disclaimer: MX Player is owned by Times Internet Ltd. (TIL), part of the Times Group which also publishes ET).

Streaming platforms have been quick to gauge Indian user’s growing appetite for Korean content, says Alisha Gonsalves, a 24-year-old lawyer from Pune. Since the beginning of the lockdown, Netflix has been aggressively marketing its original Korean content, she notes. That and her younger sister, who happens to be a big Hallyu wave rider, pushed her into watching her first K-drama — It’s Okay To Not Be Okay — a few months ago. “What I like the most about these dramas is their writing and that they have an inherent positive undertone to them — something the whole world is seeking at the moment.”

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This alleged “good-naturedness” of these soaps drew 38-year-old Vidya Gopal and her mother, Kalyani, 68, into the world of K-dramas. It was propelled by her relatively younger cousin, a veteran K-drama fan, of course. So, when Gopal was sharing space with her extended family during the initial phase of the lockdown, these dramas made for an ideal post-lunch family-friendly-viewing. “Sitting in our pyjamas, watching these good-looking and well-dressed people on-screen served as a good distraction amidst these distressing times,” adds Gopal, an illustrator from Bengaluru.

Since March, at least six Korean titles have appeared on Netflix India’s trending list, including Kingdom 2, Crash Landing on You, It’s Okay to Not be Okay, and Light Up The Sky (a documentary centered around popular K-pop girl band BLACKPINK).

Breaking stereotypes

For a country that has for long obsessed over aping the west, embracing the Korean cool is a sign of breaking away from the stereotypes associated with the far-east. Almost every fresh Hallyu convert had preconceived notions about people from the region that they happily admit to now. Preksha Jain, a Mumbai-based yoga instructor who recently hopped on the K-drama bandwagon, believed that she won’t like how the Korean men look. “They all look similar,” she thought. “Now, I’m crushing hard on Hyun Bin,” she says, referring to the lead actor of the drama Crash Landing on You (CLOY) that unspooled the love story between a South Korean female tycoon and a North Korean army officer.

“Indian women drooling over Korean men was unheard of,” notes YouTuber Scherezade Shroff. Until May, even she wondered why one of her friends was obsessed with Korean dramas. Shroff gave CLOY a try when she had run out of everything else to watch during the pandemic.

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“And that was how I began my journey down this rabbit hole.” Since then, she has started a K-Drama Club on Facebook that already has 3,000-plus members as of date. She’s doing K-drama review videos with fellow club members. In a first, she has started ordering Korean ramen noodles and kimchi, a lot. “These days, everyone jokingly calls me half-Korean,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jain is busy watching all of Hyun Bin’s interviews online, looking for their videos with subtitles like many other international fans who can reliably be found either asking for subtitled videos or posting links offering them in YouTube comments section.

“We are finally starting to explore the other side of the world now,” says Jain.





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