Episode 1: What the Hell Is Hallyu?

Jul 23, 2021


‘Hello Hallyu’ is a six-part podcast series exploring how the Korean wave captivated Indian fans, and forever changed our ideas of gender, fashion and romance. 

In this episode, superfan-journalists Nirupama and Sadhana dig deep into the history of Hallyu and its first fandoms in India, from Manipur to Madurai.

Full episode transcript:

[Intro music]

Nirupama: Let me tell you a story. It’s the year 2013, and around 10 undergraduate students of South Korea’s Seoul Women’s University come to India on a cultural exchange programme. For two weeks, they’ll be staying in a prominent women’s college in the traditional town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. They had learnt to say “Vanakkam” and “Nanri” and are looking forward to learning about Indian culture and doing volunteer work in local NGOs. 

But when they arrive, the most unexpected thing happens. A group of students from that college throws them a welcome party in which they speak… and sing… in Korean. How do I know this? I was one of those girls. 

N: Hi, I’m Nirupama. 

Sadhana: And I’m Sadhana. We’re journalists, but more importantly, we’re huge fans of Korean entertainment.

N: We’ve been following Korean entertainment and culture for years. We wanted to understand how exactly it went from being a niche subculture to something that way too many Indians are now familiar with — and so we decided to trace the story from its beginnings.

S: This is Hello Hallyu, the story of the rise of Korean entertainment in India, in six episodes. We spoke to academics, translators, Korean content producers and all kinds of fans to tell this story. Be it K-pop, Korean dramas, Korean language or the whole aesthetic, we get to the bottom of what makes it so appealing to so many people. 

N: We explore the history, bust a few myths, chat with kurta-clad Korean influencers, go into fascinating academic theories, and get a glimpse of the passionate fandom that drives all of this. Whether you’re a fan or just a curious person who wants to understand it more, this podcast is for you!

———- MUSIC ———-

N: You know, what’s the one thing people are always surprised to hear when we’re talking about Korea? It’s that your Korean dramas and K-pop — they’re closely linked to the sheet masks that you’re using, the Shin ramyun that’s now in the supermarkets and why that one friend changed their “Paris vacation” plan to a “Seoul vacation” plan. 

S: There’s a whole phenomenon, and it’s called Hallyu. 

N: For listeners who don’t know, let’s get straight to what the hell Hallyu is.

S: Well, “Hallyu” is a term coined to explain the popularity of Korean entertainment throughout the world. It literally translates to [mean] “the Korean wave.” Which is why you’ve been seeing variations of punny headlines like “The Korean wave crashes India/Riding the Korean wave.”

N: Yeah, it’s a big thing, people. A wave, so big and sweeping, that it is seen by some scholars as a challenge to Western media’s imperialism and western-centred globalisation. Strong words, yeah, and over the course of this episode, you’ll understand why they say this. Some people actually call it the “Korean Tsunami” instead. 

S: Oh, yeah! Especially over the last year or so, since “Parasite” won the best film of the year at the Oscars. More people than ever seem to be jumping over the one-inch barrier that subtitles pose, and realising that there’s a whole world outside of English language entertainment. 

N: I was so very happy to see that a non-Hollywood movie got it. What a historic moment for world cinema! 

S: You know when I felt like we’d arrived at that kind of turning point for Hallyu in India? 

N: When you finally started watching K-dramas after ignoring my recommendations for years?

S: Ha. Will you never let me live that down? But, I’m being serious here. I went to watch a documentary about the K-pop group BTS in 2018, and because the movie was playing in my sleepy suburban Hyderabad neighbourhood, I knew there was a demand for it. But when I went to the theater, the hall was full, there were people playing BTS songs and singing along in Korean, and doing the exact choreography outside the theater — and I just went, damn. 

N: Whoa, that sounds amazing, frankly! I’m from Tamil Nadu, and I’ve seen that level of fanfare only when Rajnikanth’s movies release. 

S: Well, I suppose I have to be a little relieved that BTS fans aren’t doing poojas for giant cardboard cutouts…Yet. 

N: If some of you listeners think we’re just hyping this up, here are some real numbers: in 2019, for South Korea, the total export value of cultural content due to Hallyu was $6.384 billion. That’s a big number, for a country that’s the size of an average Indian state. 

S: Yeah, and there’s been some real visible inroads that Hallyu has made into India over the last year or so. For instance, Netflix has reported a 370% increase in the viewership of K-dramas from India in 2020 from the previous year. And the Indian fanbase of BTS has more than 100,000 fans on Twitter alone. K-pop fans made so many calls to VH1 that they added a K-pop segment on the channel! 

N: Oh yeah! And when Rollingstone India published an interview with BTS, this was in 2017, so many fans visited the site that it crashed. 

S: Haha, companies and publications weren’t prepared for the passion of K-pop fans. 

N: To understand exactly how this passion for K-pop exploded, we spoke to a professor who can put this evolution into context.

Vyjayanti Raghavan: I’m Vyjayanti Raghavan, Professor of Korean Studies, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, at JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University]. I’ve been associated with Korea since 1976. 

That’s her. 

VR: The 80s in Korea was a period of economic and political development. The period before that — during president Park Chung Hee’s rule — was a very autocratic, military dictatorship [period] from 1961-79. He ruled with an iron fist — there was just no liberty. No civil liberty, no press liberty, no political liberty, nothing at all for the people. So, in 1979, he was assassinated. After his assassination, the people thought that the days ahead would get them some kind of liberty — liberal political ideas and some freedom to express them because economically, they had developed quite a bit by then. 

N: Oh yes, they had! We learnt quite a bit about South Korean development as part of my master’s in development studies curriculum. The whole story of how they went from being underdeveloped and getting their independence, at the same time as us in India, to becoming an OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] country today is called “Miracle” by the Han River. It’s impressive, but it’s filled with lots of dictatorships and unrest even after Park Chung Hee’s time, as you’ll hear.

VR: Yet another military ruler Chun Doo Hwan took over. So there was a lot of unrest. People were out on the streets, and it was a terrible time. So when Noh Tae Wook took over towards the latter half of 1988, he had to divert people’s attention from the political unrest. 

That’s the time when Korea held its Olympics. They could not portray a Korea that was in this state of affairs, so they started promoting culture. Globally, “Jurassic Park” was making such a big hit. So they started promoting their culture. And that involved K-drama, Korean Pop, and K cinema to begin with. And largely, the dramas caught on in China, Taiwan and Japan. 

S: You know I’ve heard about the OG dramas that started off the Hallyu phenomenon in East Asia, but hearing about all the political unrest that led to this was really cool. 

N: Yes, but what’s even more interesting than how it may have begun is how it reached India. It’s been here much longer than recent news articles would have you believe and very, very fascinating. And even here, there’s a background of political unrest during which Hallyu emerged. Here’s what Veewon Thokchom, a history research scholar in Mizoram University, told us: 

Veewon Thokchom: So, in 2000, the underground armed political group, the RPF [Revolutionary People’s Front], or the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], banned Bollywood in Manipur. In their press statement, they brought out a lot of things. And then they said that Bollywood represents the typical feudal nature of Indian society, Indian Hindi, mainland society.

Therefore, it’s sort of a cultural bomb. And then it’s sort of a tool for culturally colonizing the indigenous people of Manipur, and that’s why we have to ban it. So, that is their side of the story. When suddenly, in those days before the banning in Manipur, the theatres used to show Hindi movies, I remember myself watching “Koyla,” “Bicchoo, the Scorpion,” and a lot of Hindi movies in our locality theatre. But after the banning, they vanished and there was a vacuum. So there, the vacuum was suddenly occupied by two different things. One was the Manipuri cinema — so there was a boom of Manipuri cinema, which was produced indigenously by people who have self-taught themselves.

And then, the vacuum left by the banning of Bollywood was occupied by this Korean optical disc in the form of tele-series and K-dramas that came flooding in the next one-two years.

And because of the proximity of Manipur to Myanmar, there is a porous border and then, how there is the trade and then how this illegal or pirated copies of K-drama came into Manipur. So, I would say that Manipur was the first flood gate. You know, it was just at the flood gate of the Korean wave because of its proximity to Myanmar and other South Asian East Asian nations. So, that was how it came — like suddenly it came, and then it was everywhere, but not in theatres. Theatres were still occupied by Manipuri films. 

N: Maybe all the states should take turns to ban Bollywood for a few years. Maybe that will let their regional movie industry bloom, and will also let them discover international content. 

S: Haha, probably. This early exposure is why we see so many more people who are fans of Korean entertainment from the NE. 

N: Yeah, I know someone who’s grown up with it — my friend Subra Chakma. She was the first superfan of Korean entertainment that I met. She can recognise any K-pop song you hum, and had posters in Korean writing plastered all over the walls of her hostel room. I reached out to her and asked what it was like when she was a child, growing up watching Korean dramas in Mizoram. 

Subra Chakma: It goes way back — in 2004 or 2005, I can’t recall. But I was really young, around class 4 or 5. My schooling was in Mizoram till my class 8. That time, you don’t get it on TV or the internet. You had CDs which you had to buy and watch. I was in a hostel and I could remember the first [K-drama] I watched was “Autumn in my Heart,” I guess. That was a drama which released in 2000, perhaps — it was my first Korean drama. It was very emotional. I could still recall that we used to cry watching all those. Later came “Tree of Heaven,” and then the famous one which came was “Boys over Flowers.” So all girls went crazy because you had those handsome boys and good romantic acting.

We used to stay in hostels and didn’t usually get to see TV often, but our seniors brought CDs of Korean dramas so we got to watch. Later, we used to be sneaking outside our neighbour’s house, peeping through their window while they were watching those dramas. We used to be sitting on the edge of the road and watching as we said: “Oh! So today it’s this series?”

S: Wow, that’s such a sweet memory — peering into a television while passing it by on the street to find out which drama was airing. 

N: I know. I can almost imagine little Subra and friends doing that.

S: That reminds me of Veewon, who shared that Korean dramas were an integral part of his childhood. He spoke about how he was intrigued by his mum who didn’t follow the English subtitles, but would still cry and laugh along with the characters; and how his father, who never watched television, always made time for K-dramas. 

N: And yeah, and that’s what led to him getting interested in this phenomenon. 

SC: They translate those into the local language later. Usually, we watched that way. First of all, we all have the same facial structure, this thing. There are bits of cultural similarities too that we can relate to. 

When we see mainstream Indian movies, there’s a lot of religious and cultural references that are not at all similar to what we have in the Northeast. In Korean dramas, Christian and Buddhist cultures are shown. This is also practised in our house — how you treat your elders, wedding ceremonies, so you can somehow relate. But there’s very less to relate within mainstream Indian culture, maybe it is because we were never included in mainstream India. We were always set apart and not much attention was given to the Northeast. 

S: The cultural similarities that Subra was talking about, interestingly, was also the reason that a lot of scholars studying Hallyu cited when they wanted to explain how popular Hallyu got in East and Southeast Asia. There wasn’t too much literature or study on this in India, but the boom in East Asia and NE India happened around the same time. 

N: Yes, time for some quick academic perspective. This was actually called the “cultural proximity theory.” When the local media doesn’t deliver the content its people like, then they’ll prefer to consume content from countries similar to theirs in terms of appearances, language, customs, and geography. But it does not explain what’s happening today, right? And how popular Hallyu is in such ethnically and geographically diverse regions.

S: And that’s actually where this other theory called “cultural hybridity” gives us a better explanation. It’s the theory that for the audiences in Asia, Hallyu provides them with a balanced mix of Asian values and western ideas. And this actually allows them to still retain the ideas that they are used to and familiar with but seen with a global lens that makes it new and appealing. 

N: I also feel, and purely my theory, that this plays a part in people from smaller towns, especially in South India, are fans of K-dramas and K-pop, you know? Because they don’t see themselves relating to Bollywood. 

S: How so?

N: I mean, in the college that I went to in Madurai, a lot of the students came from conservative families. So they had been mostly exposed to just Tamil films and TV. Now to them, Korean entertainment is this interesting new thing which they can sort of relate to — because Korean society is also hierarchical and a little conservative. 

But the characters have access to the resources and liberties that they did not have. The female lead in the drama could date and marry someone of her choosing, emerging above parents disapproving, class disparities, etc. Something that they couldn’t do themselves. So I could sort of see them living vicariously through the dramas. 

S: What you’re saying is similar to what Professor Michelle Cho said. Prof. Cho studies Korean entertainment and fandom at the University of Toronto.

Michelle Cho: It’s this media commodity that represents the global in a lot of ways. But at the same time, it’s also almost the opposite thing depending on where you are. So when you’re talking about Asian contexts, I think especially Southeast Asia K-pop represents a kind of aspirational techno modernity. And then I think that in other parts of maybe the global South, that’s kind of the inflection. And then in Europe and North America, it represents a kind of parallel or alternate modernity or postmodernity, but then there are also these orientalist ideas that are projected onto K-pop.

N: Whatever the reason may be, Hallyu has spread to so many countries. At the rate at which it’s growing, people across the world might start saying “kimcheeee” instead of cheese while posing for photos. 

S: Apparently, we are at the top of countries showing high intention to spend on Hallyu content. And we’re scoring high on the Hallyu Sentiment Index. All this is and more is actually detailed in this massive report prepared by the Korean government called the “Global Hallyu Trends 2020,” where they’ve paid quite a bit of attention to India. 

N: Yeah, that is crazy, if you think about how Korea has been pretty much ignoring India, or treating it like some otherworldly place. Do you remember that KBS documentary that came out in 2015 where a bunch of K-pop stars came to India? 

S: “Dugeun Duguen India?” 

N: Oh wow, that was the original name? Oh yeah, it was called “Fluttering India” in English. Makes sense. So yeah, in that Super Junior’s Kyuhyun actually brought a spork — that fork-spoon thingy — with him because he thought he wouldn’t get cutlery in India.

S: Yeah, India was called “the wasteland of K-pop,” and the idols were shocked that there were actually buildings and film theatres.  

N: The level of their ignorance about India is so ridiculous, but K-pop was relatively unknown at that time. People hardly recognised them. Remember there’s this point in the documentary when some man asks K-pop group EXO’s Suho to take a photo of him? 

S: Yeah, that was actually hilarious to watch. But now, there are many who are not only familiar with K-pop or K-dramas but there’s a whole ecosystem of Hallyu content, right? 

N: Yeah, you have Indian food bloggers who are now creating videos on how to make Korean food, and of course beauty bloggers who exclusively blog about Korean beauty. Oh, and also the Indians in Korea suddenly becoming some sort of celebrities who make vlogs about their lives. 

S: Yeah, and there’s also Korean Youtubers making videos for an Indian audience and they’re SUPER popular.

N: Korean Dost, the most popular such channel has over nine lakh subscribers (at the time of recording this) and they mainly do reaction videos to Indian songs, interview Indians in Korea, etc. It was started by Min and Hoon, two Korean men. We spoke to Min to understand how they started and whether they see themselves as part of Hallyu. 

Min: Hello everyone, my name is Min and I am the head of a YouTube channel called Korean Dost. We thought that India matched our global experience because we both studied in the United States for around 10 years. Since we had more exposure to people and different backgrounds and where they are from, we thought that learning Indian culture as the channel develops would give many people joy, triggering our self-development. Plus, India speaks very good English, so we thought that us being able to speak English was a very good thing. 

It has been one-and-a-half years. It was the first time for us becoming YouTubers, so we had no idea how that was going to go. We reached 100,000 subscribers in three months, I think — that was something that we didn’t expect. We got a lot of love from people in India, that brings a lot of joy. We had global exposure but India and its culture was much deeper than we had ever anticipated. We started with shallow knowledge. We only had very little idea of what India could give us in terms of experience, but as we went along the journey of becoming YouTubers, we learnt it was much deeper than we ever thought. To be honest, without K-pop or BTS, our channel would never have gotten to pass over 100,000 subscribers. Big thanks to K-pop fans of India as well as K-pop stars in Korea. 

S: What I really find fascinating is the comments on the Instagram and YouTube videos of Korean Dost. There are many Indian women calling them Min Oppa and Hoon Oppa. 

N: Ooh I’ve seen this. For those who may not know, “Oppa” is a term to refer to elder brothers and also older male romantic partners, something to say you’re close with them.

S: Yeah, and it’s like because Korean pop idols and stars don’t really pay too much attention to India, they appreciate the attention from Korean influencers like Korean Dost and want them to acknowledge the Indian fanbase.  

N: Aah, yeah I do get that feeling, and these guys do cater to it. Before we ended the interview, I had to ask Min one last crucial question:

N: How many kurtas do you own? 

Min: I own about 20 kurtas, I think? I never bought one kurta, to be honest. 

N: Twenty kurtas! And they were all sent by fans. 

S: Lol, how many do you own, Nirupama? 

N: I’m not sure, but definitely fewer. Do you want to send me a few kurtas? I heard there are a lot of sales going on these days online. 

S: No. 

N: Fine! Getting back to the point, as anyone can see, what changed between the early 2000s, when Hallyu first reached India, and now (the last two-three years) is how accessible Korean content became to an Indian audience — as more of them got access to the internet and as more content began to get uploaded by a highly tech-savvy Korea.

S: You know, something I find really fascinating and something that surprises people is how intellectual copyrights, or a lack of enforcement of them rather, had a part to play in just how big Hallyu got. 

N: Are you saying Korea didn’t care about illegal streaming and content uploads? 

S: Basically they turned a blind eye towards it and let people make as many fan videos, and subtitled videos as they wanted – which obviously made them accessible to way more people. Japanese pop was also actually quite influential and popular some time back, but Japan is like notoriously strict with copyrights and takedowns of content. So it didn’t allow fans outside of Japan to have as much access to it as they did to K-pop or K-dramas even. 

N: Thank god for that, I was able to watch all those dramas before the Netflix age. In fact, a lot of what Hallyu is today is thanks to the efforts and resources that the Korean Government also put into, right? This is again something that a lot of people find surprising when they first hear it. Prof. Vyjayanti explained this to us in some detail.. 

VR: Hallyu is popular not just because the public liked it. There was a lot of government support. If you see the way it started, it started because the government realised that it could be exported — a soft power that could be exported. They got into it full on. It became an exportable product and a corporate management system was established. They engaged firms to study what the demand was like all over the world, to study what the culture was in each country that they were targeting to export it to and incorporate some of that into the way their presentations were made and artists were dressed. There was a full-on military kind of training that went into the process. Even in Northeast India when it caught on, and when the government realised it, they promoted it. They established a cultural centre in the Sejong Institute in Manipur. 

S: Wait, what do you mean they started to include other underrated industries?

N: This close mix also means we see K-pop stars as brand ambassadors for many many advertisements and cities in Korea, Kdrama stars who also sing, and are musical theatre artists – so fans end up discovering the spectrum of Korean culture, and when they go deep enough, Korean consumer products, by becoming a fan of one particular actor or singer. 

S: The scholar Choi Jung Bong calls this “Hallyu-hwa” or “Hallyu-ize” where things unrelated to Korean entertainment such as beauty products, or tourism are branded together with Hallyu.

N: Very interestingly, the South Korean government has also been using Hallyu as a means of soft power. Specifically, K-pop is used in the country’s diplomatic efforts around the world. Example: Kpop songs are sometimes played at the North-South Korea border — yes the demilitarised zone!

Not just that, top Kpop groups are chosen to perform at peace events in North Korea! 

S: Also, Saudi Arabia, with which South Korea has a trade agreement, has also been a regular stop for K-pop performers, most notably BTS. This actually drew a lot of criticism from fans because it went against BTS’ message in the United Nations that you should be able to “Speak Yourself” which would literally result in punishment given the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia. 

N: This whole thing is so interesting isn’t it? Treating culture as an important export commodity, how much resources go into it, the government’s role, the role of technology and the well-developed entertainment industry. Do you think India could pull off something similar? 

S: I think India’s soft power does have an impact – like Indian food is popular throughout the world, and Bollywood is actually consumed like we’re consuming Hallyu in some other developing countries, and of course, now Yoga and Ayurveda are receiving the kind of attention they are. But the [Korean] government is putting lots of resources into the cultural industries, and having companies also back them up. I don’t see that happening [in India] honestly. 

N: I think so too. Also, India’s culture is too diverse to be promoted and packaged in an exportable manner and trying to do that would only hurt the smaller, less recognised cultures. 

S: Fair enough, I don’t know who first came up with the word Hallyu. I read somewhere that it was a Chinese journalist, but I think the term wave really captures it so well. Because it’s really broad and washes over large sections of people in such a short period of time.

S: But it is possible to drown. We’ll talk about it in the coming episodes. The next episode is on what makes K-dramas so addictive.

N: OMG yes, my most favourite things in the world!

S: Save your excitement for the next episode. 


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