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Tea Leaves

K-drama reaches across Asian cultures

For Indian viewers, South Korean soaps are perfect pandemic viewing

A still from the South Korean hit drama "Crash Landing on You." Lighthearted fare like this is exactly what many people are looking for in these uncertain times. (Photo from Netflix India)

Since August, Indian television viewers have had direct access to the most popular South Korean dramas, dubbed in Hindi, on the DishTV platform, which is cashing in on the growing popularity of Korean-language drama series among Indian soap addicts.

I missed the original hallyu (Korean wave) two decades ago, when South Korean music, movies and TV shows started to win a global audience. I even managed to shut my ears to the beat of "Gangnam Style," the pulsing ditty by the South Korean musician Psy that briefly became the world's earworm in 2012.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic began to hold me hostage in my home I sought entertainment that was easy and uplifting. Books required too much attention, and films were a hit-or-miss way of finding much-needed comfort.

Research suggests that I was far from alone in finding that the mental and emotional toll of the virus outbreak made it difficult to focus on formerly enjoyable tasks such as reading, but K-drama turned out to be as addictive as promised. Once I started watching, I could not stop.

There are many reasons for the rising popularity of South Korean soaps in India: The characters are well-defined, it is easy to relate to them, the plots are engaging, and the stories are told at a leisurely pace over the course of a single season. The family values portrayed are attractive to many Indians. Younger viewers also find K-dramas a welcome break from the tediously extended and repetitious plots of many local-language soaps.

My initiation to K-drama came in the form of the recent hit "Crash Landing on You," a lighthearted show about South Korean heiress Yoon Se-ri, who lands in North Korea after a paragliding accident and is helped to return home by local army captain Ri Jeong-hyeok. I binge-watched this delightful drama over just two days, even though there was not much sociocultural context that I could relate to.

Then came "Sky Castle," a blockbuster series about South Korea's education system. It opened my eyes to how similar India's society is to South Korea's, despite the superficial differences. Think close-knit families with their own emotional drama, undisputed respect for age and seniority, ambitious mothers pushing their children toward success, young people wanting to step out of home and carve their own identities, and the heartbreak and elation of youthful romance.

These are, perhaps, common threads that bond all Asian societies. And it was easy to see that South Korean society is still conservative at heart, even though the country is far more economically developed than India. For instance, public displays of affection are rare, the primary role of women is as homemakers, and there is an emphasis on traditional norms of beauty.

Just as in India, food plays a leading role in these dramas -- from taut thrillers to soppy romantic comedies -- with many scenes devoted to characters relishing their meals. For them, food is clearly about happiness, unwinding, socializing with friends, bonding with family. In India, too, food is considered a panacea for physical and emotional problems.

Netflix India says that some of its South Korean soaps have been on the most-viewed lists in the country. (Photo from Netflix India)

One friend, a veteran K-drama fan, claims that these soaps remind her to focus on embracing little joys and practicing mindfulness in daily life -- something that has been important to prevent depression during the long lockdown days. "I love how the characters go into raptures about such small things as seeing the first snow of the season with a loved one," she says.

Another avid K-drama viewer told me she tries to avoid content that adds to her stress levels or piles on more negativity during these trying times. According to her, "K-dramas are full of innocence and hope, and the scripts are wholesome -- revolving around friendships, families, and relationships. It leaves me feeling warm, fuzzy and happy."

Indeed, the world shown in these soaps is far removed from the real world, with its unceasing flow of bad news about politics and public health problems. What they offer is a much-needed slice of escapism to help us cope with the anxiety and uncertainty of these days.

Viewership was rising fast even before DishTV launched its Korean Drama Active service on Aug. 5, even though K-drama fans had to find their favorite shows on the internet. Sugato Banerji, head of marketing for DishTV India, says the company stepped into the market because it "observed a surge in the content of Korean origin in online consumption." Netflix India has also claimed that some of its Korean soaps have been on the most viewed lists in the country.

While news of a COVID-19 vaccine has raised hopes around the world, the nightmare continues. For now, I am content, like many of my compatriots, to binge-watch shows that come with an assurance that all will be well in the end.

Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian freelance journalist currently living in Kuala Lumpur.

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