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Charting the rise of Korean content in India, with popularity of shows like Crash Landing on You, Hellbound

Viewership of Korean web series has grown in India by a whopping 370 percent, as reported by Netflix. This indicates key cultural shifts in viewing preferences.

Archita Kashyap
Jan 04, 2022
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South Korea is a relatively small nation, also lesser known amongst a majority of holiday-seeking Indians that have discovered overseas travel in the last few years. But Korean TV, like its music bands BTS and BlackPink, are the flavour of this year for Indian audiences.

In 2016, Netflix hit upon a winning idea when it commissioned over 80 Korean thrillers, dramas and films. The decision has paid rich dividends now. Korean content is seen as the lead drivers for the platform in countries like Argentina and Brazil and is a major draw for its Indian viewership.

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Each show has won global audiences, and almost every show explores a different genre, recreating a unique world and inhabiting it with characters that you root for. Crash Landing on You, belonging to the rom-com genre, was a huge hit. Squid Game has now become a household name, having found 111 million viewers worldwide. This high concept show was rejected for years by almost every TV network, and creator Hwang Dong-hyuk had to sell his laptop to keep himself afloat while pitching it. Yet, the series has busted all records and built itself a global cult following. Similarly, Hellbound, which takes a dystopian and disturbing hypothetical look at the limits of human nature, opened at Number 2 on Netflix; and glided to the top rank. Unlike Squid Game, Hellbound is not the best-produced show, but like the former, its story is powerful with a universal appeal at its crux.

Viewership of Korean web series has grown in India by 370 percent, as reported by Netflix. This indicates key cultural shifts and changes in viewing preferences. A big factor in this change is the altered demographic of OTT viewers in India. More than half are around 25-30 years in age. Language, cultures and perceptions of ‘other cultures’, don’t apply to their choices. Second, Korean series have built a successful global connect within a short span of time. Parasite grabbed eyeballs with its Oscar wins, but the legacy of K-dramas being watched globally dates before this film. In fact, in India, filmmakers like Sanjay Gupta had wantonly ripped off Korean crime classic Old Boy to make Zinda; and then lived with the ignominy of plagiarism. In 2009, Mizoram’s local news network would be interrupted through cable TV interactive message boards, asking to re-start streaming a Korean TV series.

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Korean content focuses on subjects that affect everyone in today’s world, without the superficial filters of glamour and glitz. Debt and financial desperation in difficult economic times propels the choices that each character in Squid Game makes. In Hellbound, it is about survival, reason and superstition. The series is about living even when one might have received an otherworldly appointment with death. The latest K series to hit Netflix, The Silent Sea, is a near meditative exposition on the depths that humans will plunge to; when they need something as basic as water. With stories structured around basic survival strategies, these series speak about unimaginable yet convincing struggles. Be it the theme of romance and love (Crash Landing on You and It’s Okay Not To Be Okay); or a zombie horror show like Kingdom, such stories are dramatic and boast of slick production; making each show a riveting watch.

A third important factor that makes Korean shows easy to view is the absence of nudity and sex. Violence and gore are never omitted. In fact, there’s a steady supply of bloodshed in most Korean web series. But almost all their programs omit sexual content, which makes it easier for families to watch them together.

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It is also important to remember that Korean stories are often, family-centric. While plots and contexts cover a spectrum of subjects, the crux of all stories is about protecting, defending or fighting for one’s family. Emotionally, families are central to every major decision taken by an Indian person. When a series reflects the same emotions and places it in contemporary, current contexts, it tends to connect effectively with an Indian viewer.

Family dramas were once the forte of films and TV soaps in our country. Cutting out hyperbole and sprucing up storylines to sync with aspirations of the under-30 Indian significantly raises a show’s chances of success. Perhaps a major factor in determining the success of Korean programs is the structure of their episodes. Most tend to end in 10 episodes or less; few have second and third seasons; and storylines have a neat, finite ending. Shows like Vincenzo and Sweet Home might not be about subjects with mass appeal but still, find loyal viewership in India.

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Besides, most K-series use the brilliant and simple idea to increase their appeal by dubbing them in over 40 languages when they launch. Automatically access to these shows increased in India, where viewing content in vernacular languages has always proven effective.

The Korean pop cultural wave, referred to as Hallyu in Gen Z terms, has seen other OTT platforms move swiftly to acquire their content. MX Player, targeting a mass audience base, has launched VDesi, which brings Korean & South East Asian content. Amazon Prime Video has caught up with top Korean network shows like The Penthouse. Platforms like Viki stream SouthEast Asian content exclusively in India.

Whether the obsession with Korean content sustains over time can’t be predicted just yet. Given their record, a certain standard in quality has always been visible in Korean popular storytelling. If anything, their interpretation of reality teaches Indian content creators a lot about writing and creating shows that can consistently find audiences at home and abroad.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)


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