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Episode 2: The K‑Drama Secret Ingredient

Jul 23, 2021

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‘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. 


We break down the unique appeal of the K-drama and what makes South Korean culture aspirational for Indians. 

Full episode transcript:

Nirupama: Do you have a friendship ritual? Something that you do, give or share with a friend, which means that they’ve crossed over from the casual friend arena to the close friend circle? Something to show that they really matter to you without explicitly telling them that? I do. 

I introduce them to Korean dramas and maybe even push them to sit and watch an episode of one of the best dramas out there that I personally handpicked for them. And if they care for our friendship, they better not be too mean with their comments.

N: Hi, I’m Nirupama. 

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

N: And this is Hello Hallyu, the story of the rise of Korean entertainment in India. 

S: In the previous episode, we told you about what Hallyu is and how it blew up in India. Today, we’re going to talk about the drama that started it all. 

N: K-drama. Hehehe.

———- MUSIC ————–

N: In the last one month, FOUR friends reached out to me saying hey I know you watch K-dramas and I want recommendations on what to watch.

S: I’m guessing… “Crash Landing on You? (CLOY)”

N: Crash Landing on You! They all said they watched that drama and then maybe a couple more and were blown away by them and then now they’re like, OMG, someone save me by giving me more dramas to watch. I wouldn’t be afraid to call it the next biggest gateway drama after the 2009 super hit “Boys over Flowers” which took Hallyu to many countries. 

S: Let’s back up for a moment, for those of you who may not know: K-dramas refer to South Korean television series. 

N: Technically, miniseries. They’re usually 16 or 20 episodes and end in one season. The weekend dramas may go up to 50 or 100 episodes. But they still air at a stretch and don’t have seasons. 

S: K-dramas are what started the Hallyu craze back in the late 1990s. Soon, in the early 2000s, it reached people in the Northeast and a few other parts of India, but in tiny pockets. A whole lot more people started watching them after 2010, as the internet made them more accessible.

N: But it was still very niche. But today, in 2021, they’re pretty popular. And the thing with K-dramas is, you cannot watch just one. 

S: Which is why all your friends who watched CLOY are probably on their 15th drama now, if I’m estimating conservatively. 

N: That’s totally possible. 

S: I think what appeals to the people who are watching K-dramas for the first time is the production value. Breathtaking outdoor locations, designer clothing and helicopters — and CLOY has all these in spades. 

N: It’s such a fantastic escape from real life to see this sort of a fairytale-esque drama. Many, many people discovered K-dramas over the lockdown. Imagine, you’re bored, worried out of your mind, and Netflix keeps aggressively showing you these suggestions. 

S: There are so many K-dramas on Netflix these days, it’s unbelievable! 

N: Yeah, that’s perfect because people who like dramas don’t stop with one or two titles. They become fans of the entire drama verse. And that kind of leads nicely into exactly what we want to understand: What is it that makes K-dramas so addictive? 

S: Is it sugar, spice and everything nice? 

N: You forgot Chemical X. Okay, sorry for that terrible joke (something which acknowledges and breaks this up with listeners). And who better to deconstruct this than the two people we know who have been living, breathing and writing about dramas for so many years. 

S: Sarah and Jen Chung, better known as Javabeans and Girlfriday who ran the site Dramabeans. For those of the listeners who don’t know, Dramabeans is a site started for recapping Korean dramas which grew in popularity because it offered insights and analysis to viewers in English.

N: Their posts in Dramabeans are the reason I became a conscious and active drama watcher. I went from blindly consuming content that came my way to savouring it and looking at it critically. 

S: Sarah and Jen now work at Netflix and run “The Swoon,” which creates content across YouTube and other social media. It’s made by fans and for drama fans and features the all-star cast starring in dramas that Netflix acquires. 

N: We got them together on a call and asked them what makes K-dramas addictive.

Sarah: I think over the years we have kind of been asked this question and then thought about it a lot. And so we’ve picked up a series for potential reasons. I don’t think it’s any one secret formula, but we’ve found that for instance, our go-to is: Korean Dramas are designed to make you feel something.

Jen: They’re every day, they’re universal. And so, because they’re designed to elicit all that emotion from you and get you really invested over a series — whether it’s 16 episodes or 80, if it’s a weekend family drama, for instance — then you really get invested with these characters [00:05:24] and brought on their journey.

Sarah: I think that the word is investment — it’s emotional investment. Somehow they hook you and they get you to stick with it because we have. I’m sure all of us have seen that really terrible drama, but for whatever, that one reason you stick through 16 episodes. And even if it’s a really terrible drama I’ve seen. So many Korean dramas that I actually enjoyed because of that one thing that hooked me, that got me invested in seeing it through, and then the payoff is worth it for whatever reason. 

Jen: And I think that payoff is important. Like the stories are built so that you get to that payoff and you feel like, okay, that emotional investment was worth it because I’m going to get a come up for the villain at the end, I’m going to see that heroine really come into her own and find herself and become happy.

S: Speaking of emotional investment, one type of drama I really like are these “healing dramas,” where one of the leads starts off with this trauma or emotional baggage and through the course of the drama we see them grow. It’s not always a magically overcome everything type of thing, but a very slow, setback filled process that, as a viewer, is very emotionally fulfilling. Like the drama “My Ahjussi.” 

N: You don’t know how much I’ve cried because of these dramas! Ya, I feel like this sort of emotional investment in the characters is what makes K-dramas best suited for binge-watching. Also the short length and the fact that they have just one season.

Sarah: Like we love the single-season arc. These episodes are either 16 or 20, or even if it’s 50, just knowing that there’s going to be an end. But I also think it ties into the emotional thing we’re talking about because the format forces you to have developed this sort of.

How to get this emotion out of the viewer in this efficient amount of time. Like some people call it formulaic and yeah, it is kind of formulaic, but I also think that that’s not always a bad thing, right. It’s a shorthand to get, it’s sort of like inject the emotion straight into my bank. 

Jen: And I think the format promises that you get an ending of some sort, right? Like, I hate starting a thing not knowing when it’s going to end. Is it going to be renewed for seven seasons? Like how long am I investing in these characters?  Am I going to take a break for seven months before I get to see them again? So this is, I think you get a very clear window of like, in 16 episodes in eight weeks, this story is going to be over and I’m going to get some kind of resolution. So, that format is satisfying. 

Sarah: You give me a bite-sized or a finite amount of episodes. I’m actually willing to dive in wholeheartedly more. Right, so I can just read into this drama and revel in it and just go into my little bat cave and just live and breathe this drama for the two months that it’s airing.

S: That emotional payoff was actually really important for helping me keep sane a couple of years ago. When I started watching a drama, I didn’t know what my life would look like in the eight weeks it would take for the drama to finish airing. But I could depend on knowing that in the drama at least, the loose ends would be tied up, the bad guys would get their due, and there might even be a happily-ever-montage for all the characters. That actually really helped me cope, as strange as it might sound. 

N: Aww, I know. It’s not strange at all, actually. Most drama fans relate to dramas deeply and it has a huge impact on their lives. I turn to dramas during tough periods in my life too and it helps me cope. And it’s not just us. 

Sarah: Like they were in a really dark place. And dramas, just like they were in a dark place, they stumbled on the dramas completely accidentally. And for whatever reason, the thing they found really spoke to them, then it really helped lift them out of their gloom. And then, I mean, the dramas weren’t responsible for healing them, but it set them on that path, which I think really helps that process.

It can be little moments too because I remember I was in a really down patch for whatever reason it was feeling pretty, just kind of whatever with my life. And then I saw “Be Melodramatic,” and there was this one scene toward the very end where there’s this character who has, she has lost her loved one and has been very closed off and doesn’t ask for help. And it’s just like, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m totally fine.” And she couldn’t really grieve his death. And there was at one point where she comes to her friend and she’s like, “I’m not okay. Give me a hug.”

Jen: I didn’t have that experience, but I could feel that feeling. And I was like, for some reason, like watching them cry out like you watch them work out the emotions and it helps you, because most of us, throughout our daily lives, I think we just suppress a lot of those things just to survive, and just to go through our day and just, you know, like be good for those around us. And so we suppress a lot of those things, I think.

As women too, we do that a lot, to support those around us. And so, I think that this is a release, it’s an emotional release to be able to watch other characters work out those emotions or to say, like, “Hey, I’m not okay.” I need help or something like that. You just identify with that. 

N: Interestingly, I turn to K-dramas for this kind of emotional comfort instead of any other type of content. I feel like I don’t feel as comforted by other emotional shows I’ve watched, you know? Take the American show “This Is Us” for example. It makes you feel and cry too. But I feel like it leaves you raw and hurting.

S: Yeah, I don’t mind that bit as much as I mind the fact that they have to keep picking at the same scab — one character’s death and their life before his death — to make it emotional over the course of many, many seasons, and that kind of cheapens the whole effect I feel. 

N: 100% agree. Which is why I’m always willing to give my heart to good K-dramas. Even though I might cry a lot, I’ll feel better than I did before watching the drama. 

S: Unless, of course, you’re watching “Meow, the Secret Boy,” a drama in which a cat turns into a human and there’s a questionable romance between the cat? man? And the female lead? And you’re left crying about why you pressed play. 

N: You should know better after all these years, Sadhana. Didn’t I teach you well?

S: I know, I know, you did after all lowkey force me to watch “Reply 1988,” which is a series that stands out as a favourite and it’s just such a good example of great TV. 

N: The writing was fantastic, it has great little details and comedy. The show manages to create nostalgia for that 1988 Seoul for all of us watching it by creating a world and characters that feel so lived-in. Cannot agree more. In my head, I’ll always be one in that friends’ gang around which the story revolves. And another thing about that drama is that the society they’re showing us in 1988 Korea is extremely relatable to many parts of India today. 

S: A place in between tradition and modernity. While K-dramas are appealing to everyone, there are many reasons why they’re especially appealing to us as South Asians. We interviewed Anisa Khalifa who’s written her master’s wrote her in Asian Cultural Studies thesis on post-partition nationalism in Indian and South Korean media.

N: Anisa also co-hosts the podcast “Dramas Over Flowers,” which is a podcast by three South Asian women and their take on K-dramas. 

Anisa Khalifa: I think for South Asians, there is definitely a familiarity in a lot of the cultural norms, you know? So, like, you have sort of the family relationships, both the good and bad side of being that close with your family. Like some of the pressures, some of the support that you get. A lot of the parent and child storylines I think are really relatable for us.

We can see reflections of that in our own culture, even if it’s not 100% similar. Some of the class consciousness and the class issues that show up, I think are also somewhat similar. There are a lot of the same tropes, right? So there’s like the rom-com elements, but there’s also the romantic melodrama elements; the family drama, which we talked about; the in-law drama; the corruption and hierarchy issues, both at the workplace and just generally in society.

But at the same time, it’s in a slightly different context — it’s new and fresh and interesting. There are different details that you can kind of learn and, you know, it’s a new language. So it’s fresh, but it’s also familiar. I think that, at least for me, I think that was very interesting and cool. I think also they tend to be not as sexually explicit as American TV, and I know that made it much easier for me to watch and also introduce it to my family members. Like something you could sit and watch with your [family.] Like, I watched them with my dadi, you know, that’s pretty cool. 

N: So true. The familiar yet fresh appeal is spoken about in the cultural hybridity theory we mentioned in the first episode!

S: Exactly. One thing we must address when we’re talking about K-dramas is just the sheer number of dramas that come out in a year. How many dramas do you think aired last year? 

N: In 2020? It would be lower than the usual number because of the pandemic, but given there are seven-eight channels and then web dramas, how about 70? 

S: Ha, try 130. There were about 95 miniseries, so the 12-20 episode format dramas, and about 35 web dramas.  

N: Not surprising. Which is why you always have dramas to watch. When my friends call and ask me what I’m doing and I say watching K-dramas for the 200th time, they wonder how there’s no end to dramas. I tell them that’s the best part! Whatever your mood, there’s a drama for you. 

S: Yeah, there was a point in time when I was live-watching six dramas in a week – and two of them had the same childhood connection theme but they were done very differently. 

N: Of course they were. K-dramas heavily rely on tropes, no. I think that’s what makes it possible for so many dramas to be written and produced in such short periods. 

S: Yes!

N: What’s your favourite trope?

S: I think it’s the friends-to-lovers trope. It’s so heartwarming when well done — like in “My Unfamiliar Family,” to take a recent example, the way the show handles their relationship and growth is delightful to witness. 

N: Ah, yes! I love their relationship. Another common one is the gender-bending trope. In fact, one of the people I spoke to was a fan of K-dramas that have just this one trope. 

S: While this makes it sound like all dramas are the same, that’s not true. K-drama writers constantly play with the tropes to come up with creative and fresh takes that provide you [with] the comfort of knowing that things are going to end well, but still keep you guessing. 

A: I think tropes are tropes for a reason, you know, because they speak two realities in our life. So even if it’s a cliche, it’s a cliche because it reflects something real about our experience. It’s not always how real life works, but because it’s common enough that we can relate to it. So I think if the tropes are handled with some nuance and with good writing, and they’re executed well and they’re acted well, and there’s a sense of self-awareness about those tropes, which a lot of dramas have. They have that extra level of, you know, sometimes there’s like a little wink, wink, nod, nod, or like, there’s this acknowledgement of like, yes, this is a trope.

And it’s very played out, but also we love this and you know you love it too. So, let’s just go with it like there’s that element, it’s not like, sort of ironic. And not like this cynical kind of irony, but it’s kind of playful fun. We’re all fans of this thing and let’s just enjoy what we enjoy.

N: Oh yeah, I love when dramas do that. These are some of the things that casual fans may not be able to enjoy. And there are so many casual fans these days because dramas are more accessible than ever now in India. They are on Netflix, they’re even showing dubbed versions in some TV channels and these dubbed versions are also on OTT platforms. 

S: We spoke to Mansi Shrivatsav, senior vice president of content acquisition at MX Player, one such OTT platform which offers original content as well as international content dubbed into regional languages to tell us about how K-dramas are becoming an important part of their roadmap. 

Mansi: [We] first introduced them in around mid-2019. We saw that it was being sampled. We saw that it was being also consumed in a heavier manner in terms of the serious users, the serious consumers. So we did see an immediate response to this category. And [00:06:18] from there on, we then went on to expanding it and making sure that then we are providing more languages within that content. We started off with Hindi and then we also want to double it in Telugu and Tamil, etc. 

They’ve resonated very, very well amongst the millennials, and MX clear is definitely sort of seeing the trends upwards in the relate-ability of the content, the narratives, you know, that are appealing to the Indian youth, the storylines have been unique. They’ve been fascinating. Some of them are addressing subjects and teams, which maybe some of our own content is not yet touching. So based [on these] reasons we have seen a great incline in the consumption of Korean dramas. And for us specifically, since the time we’ve introduced them, it’s also doubled our audience space within the Korean drama segment which is a loyal one. And they’ve been out consuming heavy audiences over with.

So for us, this is not something, which is, short-term. We aim to sort of grow this space and, you know, invest our time in it, in further exploring what all we could bring to the audience.

N: MX Player, since its launch in 2019, has dubbed around 25 dramas into Hindi, with the Korean category minutes increasing by 15x. 

S: What was a little surprising for me was looking at the titles on MX Player that still managed to get popular. These weren’t your gateway Hallyu dramas like “Descendants of the Sun,” these are dramas that may even escape the notice of regular drama fans but which found an audience because they are dubbed into Hindi. For instance, a drama called “Rich Man,” which stars K-pop group EXO’s leader Suho as the male lead, racked up about 26 million views for the 16 episodes — and I haven’t heard of a non-EXO fan really watching this drama so far. 

N: And, MX Player is aware of the potential this has. It’s also sort of telling stories in a sensitive manner. I think they are addressing subjects, which probably are important to most youngsters. Sometimes some of those subjects and sometimes some of those teams get left behind. They don’t get addressed in the same way. 

And you can very clearly see that there is a gap there and that, you know, it is appreciated. It is something that is being viewed across, across very small towns.

N: To me, the most appealing thing about dramas is how their length allows them to give lots of room for showing character development and growth of relationships. 

S: It’s like taking a novel and picturising every page. 

N: Exactly, and I think thanks to that, I became a more sensitive and perceptive person after years of watching dramas. I am not kidding. As an introvert, I was exposed to more social interactions and relationship dynamics through dramas than I was in real life. 

S: Oh yeah, when you said dynamics, that reminded me of something K-dramas also do excellently — depict female friendships, including all the prickly parts of it. Like in one of my all-time favourites, “Age of Youth.” 

N: OMG, yes! I love my K-drama girl gangs! They’ve made me feel so warm and appreciate my girlfriends more. I loved the gang in “Be Melodramatic” and “Because This Life Is My First.” And dramas do well in these things because a majority of the writers are female. So, I think they do bring out the female gaze in their stories. 

S: Ah, yes. The female gaze. How refreshing!

N: But I hate it when people think dramas are only for women. That’s so not true. Actually, let me prove it to you by introducing you to my uncle.

S: Your uncle? 

Hello, chikappa? 

Hmm, tell me. What is the matter? 

How are you?

I’m good. 

N: That’s my father’s brother. He’s 58 years old and he’s been watching Korean dramas since… wait, I’ll let you guess. 

S: Five years…?

N: Not even close. 16 years! Remember how we spoke about the time when dramas first came to India in the Northeast? They were also available on cable TV in Tamil Nadu — KBS World, the Korean equivalent of Doordarshan, showed dramas with subtitles. He started watching then and he hasn’t stopped. 

S: What did he say he likes about dramas? 

N: A lot of things, actually. Obviously, he spoke about the production value. They put a lot of effort into making things look realistic. If you take Tamil serials, somebody will be talking about doing business in crores of rupees, but the person will look very normal. He’ll be wearing regular clothes and will drive a regular car. They might not even show him driving a car. But in Korean dramas, the rich person will look believably like a rich person — the car he uses, the clothes he wears and his house would be a massive mansion. Similarly, a poor family will be shown to be living in a visibly poor neighbourhood in a small house and even the furniture in their house will look like it belongs there. 

The focus on family subjects and how they show grandpa, grandma, uncle and aunt — it’s like our Indian culture. It reminds us of our own families. You don’t see that in other foreign entertainment. Even when they call Umma and Appa, you feel this attachment while hearing it, like it’s happening in our family.  

It’s usually 16 or 12 episodes only, except the family weekend dramas which may be has 50 episodes. Instead of needlessly stretching the stories, they wrap it up at that finite number. Sometimes you feel like there could have been more. 

Also, it is very fast-paced, scenes change quickly. In our serials, when four people sit within four walls and talk to each other, they show everyone’s expression to every single sentence being said soon, that episode comes to an end. But in K-dramas, within one hour, they pack so many scenes and shoot in so many different outdoor locations, so you don’t get bored. 

And how, unlike in Indian series, in Korean dramas a rich person looks very believably like a rich person — you know they live in a state of the art mansion, wear perfectly tailored designer clothing and drive around in a luxury car.

S: Oh, yeah they go all out in showing us the flashy lives of the rich. 

N: And about how it’s shot outdoors instead of how most Indian series are shot within four walls. Oh, and how it’s fast-paced and not dragging on one scene for ten minutes, like Indian serials do.

S: Yes Indian soaps start off with one thing, and 800 episodes later, it’s their grandchildren or the same person who’s come back from the dead and no logical consistency at all. 

N: OMG, yes, do you know this one Hindi serial in which the female lead turns into a bee? 

S: What?

N: I swear, I am not joking. It really is. Google “Simran turns into a bee.” But, anyway, back to my uncle. He said that likes that the dramas are finite. And of course, said he likes the family bonding and relationships portrayed in dramas. 

But the most interesting thing he said was this: he said he likes seeing Korea in these dramas. 

S: Oh. As in, he likes the scenery?

When they show villages, they’re so green. Even when they show parks, they gave greenery on one side, and children’s play area on another. And they show how people go and sit at parks when they’re feeling low or stressed. It’s very nice to see. You can’t see that here. 

They show that a lot of people use public transport. And even the buses there, they’re always uncrowded. Whenever I see that, I feel like “wow, I wish we had such uncrowded buses.” And the buses are so neat, they’re all luxury buses — the doors close automatically and the ticketing system is automatic. It makes you want to take the bus. 

Even in the streets, you never see sand. Wherever there’s soil it’s usually grass. So, you never see much dust anywhere. I often think, “look at our cities, how much dust we have! It even enters our homes.” After seeing the clean streets in K-dramas, we realise what we don’t have, and wish we had that. You know, when buses drive by in India, you’d see a cloud of dust going with it. But there, when a bus goes, it’s just the bus you see. No dust. 

But in India, we have a large population, and so many villages and small towns and a different set of challenges. So all that is not possible here. But, when we see these things, you naturally like it. Even though the culture is similar, so many such things are different. 

N: No, he said he likes seeing the clean streets, non-crowded buses and the lack of dust when a vehicle drives by. He wishes he can live in a place like that. 

S: Yeah dramas, well-made dramas, sell that fantasy of Korea and especially Seoul. This is what professor Michelle Cho was talking about, right? The aspirational value people in developing countries like India see in Korean entertainment. 

N: Yes, that’s fascinating. We do see aspirational cities in Western entertainment — American of British movies or TV shows. But it feels alien and unreachable to us because there are few other factors of relatability. Whereas in Korean dramas, the society kind of resembles ours, and yet they’re a developed country. So it seems more relatable — a better version of our own.

S: So that’s the perfect format, the high emotional quotient, the great writing, family-friendly themes, movie-level production quality, the female gaze and aspirational value. Phew. That was a lot of secret ingredients, wasn’t it? 

N: I think you missed a few, but yeah. That’s why the formula is so successful and appealing to such a wide audience. They do so many things so well! 

S: Yeah! And, listeners, now you know what you can reply with the next time you hear someone dismiss K-dramas without knowing much about them. 

N: If you’re gonna take on haters, we strongly recommend you also listen to the next episode on K-pop so you are extra prepared. 

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