Imphal, Manipur – Sixteen-year-old Kinchit sits transfixed, every time the Korean soap opera The Heirs makes it to the television screen, doing no more than scribbling a few Korean words from time to time. At her home in Imphal, the capital of India’s northeastern state Manipur, she has a collection of 85 Korean films and soap operas.
Her favourites are Boys Over Flowers and Barbie.
She is a huge fan of Korean films and her hunger for anything Korean makes her want to learn more Korean words. She already knows a smattering of them: from Sarang hae (I love you) to anna saiya (hello). But that is not enough and she has recently bought a copy of the Speak Korean With Me For Foreigners.
“It is a craze, South Korean films, fashion, hair styles, language. They are brilliant,” she says excitedly.
Her excitement is shared by a majority of locals, as the state separated from New Delhi by about 2,433km is swept by an unprecedented Korean wave of cultural export.
Manipur has been mired in insurgency since long, with armed outfits waging a war against the state to pursue a myriad of demands. In 2000, a powerful local group, the Revolutionary People’s Front, ordered a ban on Hindi films and channels to “stamp out Indianisation”.
As theatre and cable operators capitulated, Korean fare stepped in to fill the vacuum.
First, Airarang TV, a 24-hour English language network based in Seoul, set the scene for the fixation. Korea’s KBS World ushered in dramas later, and soon the streets of Manipur were swamped with pirated Korean DVDs.
Fourteen years later, the ban on Indian fare has somewhat become lax, but remains largely in place. And Manipur continues to remain in the thrall of Korea: even mannequins wear wigs styled after Korean spiky haircuts, and youngsters have Facebook profiles with Korean names.
South Korean culture exports are popular in much of Southeast Asia including Mongolia, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the global market share of South Korean entertainment and media industry ranked seventh in the world in 2012 with $45.1bn revenue.
The key factor that abets the popularity of Korean wave is the cultural proximity of Korean and Manipuri societies in terms of both being of Mongoloid stock; both societies being based on clan communities
Research scholars Otojit Kshetrimayum and Ningombam Victoria Chanu writes: the first Korean Wave to hit India was economic, when Hyundai, LG, Daewoo, and Samsung entered Indian homes.
The second wave was cultural, which Manipur experienced at the same time as other Asian nations. According to their research, “The key factor that abets the popularity of Korean wave is the cultural proximity of Korean and Manipuri societies in terms of both being of Mongoloid stock; both societies being based on clan communities.”
Similarity in religious structures, philosophy of traditional music and dance and folk games also helped. India’s Look East Policy opened the Indo-Myanmar border through Manipur for trade and facilitated the smuggling of pirated DVDs. The influence has spilled over to the other northeastern states.
Everyone living in Manipur is mesmerised with Korean films, says K D Joy, a Christian missionary and educator, living in Manipur for 34 years. His own favourite is Spoonful of Tears.
It is more prevalent in hill areas, which rarely had theatres. “People are used to private parlours and home viewing so it was easy for Korean DVDs to proliferate,” he says. In some parts of tribal Manipur, Korean films and dramas are dubbed into local dialects.
Manipur is notorious for power cuts; electricity is available for few hours every day. “If it is an evening with electricity, people miss church programmes to watch Korean dramas,” Joy adds.
On a recent morning in Imphal, the sidewalk near Purana Bazar was busy as vendors set up shop. Memna Devi, 45, spread a cane mat and squatted, next to women selling betel nuts, lotus pods and tamarind. Devi sells film DVDs.
“Within a few hours of the release of a Korean movie, it becomes available on the streets,” she said. Most DVDs are smuggled from Myanmar through the border town of Moreh. But in recent years, local printing has mushroomed.
People from India’s northeastern states, including Manipur, have long complained of racial discrimination in the rest of the country.
“A young person from northeast who is wearing a spaghetti top in Delhi is not doing something different from the rest of the country. It is not the dress but the racial profiling; we are from the northeast and we look different because of our race. We are more mongoloid. There is verbal humiliation, physical humiliation,” laments Binalakshami Nepram, a Manipuri activist.
Matters came to a head recently when a youth from Arunachal Pradesh was beaten to death in New Delhi. It both sparked outrage and protests.
Considering the alienation, it is understandable why Ranjit San,19, has never missed not watching a Hindi movie ever. “All my friends like Korean entertainment because they are good, simple and the actors are stylish.”
There is a feel good factor, he says. “There is not much violence, nothing sad, just funny and sweet romance.” He has watched Tree of Heaven, part of Heaven’s Trilogy drama series, five times.
“Imitating the styles is easy because our physical features are similar to the Koreans,” he adds.
K Ollini, a youth counsellor at Bosco Mangaal, says Korean films and dramas appeal to all ages because of the “clean” plots that correspond with local conservative values. “There are no obscene scenes, not much sexual content, even clothes are decent, entire family can watch together.”
Another huge positive is that reading subtitles while watching Korean films has improved people’s English language skills.
Naba Kumar is a professor at the Liberal College and father of two. He grew up watching Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan’s films, which are his favourite. “But you can’t avoid watching Korean shows because the kids control the remote.”
But imitation is for the young. “It is a phase, school to college and maybe till they are in their twenties.”
Copying Korean hairstyles is common, says K S Gangphun of Style and U salon in Churachandpur district. He shows a folder with black and white photocopied pages of headshots. Posters of Korean actors Rain, Lee Min-ho, Kim Bum and others are plastered on the wall. “They use coconut oil to get the spikes.”
For clothes, the go-to place is the Gambhir market in Imphal. “Mostly young men are crazy about the cool Korean look,” says Dono Ningthouajim. He points to a number of stalls selling brightly coloured pants, skinny and torn jeans, printed shoelaces, black boots and caps.
Meanwhile, Yuring Won and her friends are planning a weekend hangout to watch 20 episodes of Stairway to Heaven. “It will be a marathon. All young girls watch it in groups. The actors are so cute,” she says with a giggle.