Unravelling India’s obsession with Korean pop

  • Sharanya Gopinathan
  • Updated: Aug 20, 2016 07:57 IST
Fans at the K-Pop contest in Chennai (Sharanya Gopinathan)

I climbed into a car with six other Bengaluru-based women, all in Chennai to attend the K-Pop India Contest Grand Finale, to rousing cheers of “gapssida!” That’s “let’s go!” in Korean, a language all six women were fluent in. Over the next two days, though I was in Chennai, my ears were going to tune to Korean, and not just because Chennai reportedly has 6000 Korean residents.

Take Jayashree, a 24-year-old Bengaluru-based software engineer, for instance. Because there were no official Korean culture groups to organise the Bengaluru round of the contest there last month, Jayashree had stepped in and offered her services to the Korean Culture Council: she and a small group of fellow K-Pop enthusiasts organised the Bengaluru round. Then she had taken time off of work to rent a car and drive 10 hours to Chennai to volunteer at the Grand Finale.

Jayashree and her friends are K-Pop enthusiasts in all their obsessive glory.

While everyone had their own personal favourites, from the classic K-Pop bands Big Bang and Exo to the current ruler-of-charts, BTS, they were united in their single-minded devotion to all things Korean. Riding in the car with them before the Finale, I got to hear all the greatest K-Pop hits, new, old, popular, obscure.

Since all six were aware that I was a newbie to the Korean entertainment scene, I was, over the course of the next two days, treated to several educational, if slightly breathless, insights into all the latest trends in Korean entertainment. That is, when they weren’t singing along to the music at the top of their lungs.

For the most part though, the song selection was peaceful, as there were few K-Pop songs that anyone in the car actually disliked, but by popular consensus, it was decided that BTS would be played a little later in the evening when excitement was its peak, and down-tempo ballads reserved for the journey back to our hotel later that night.

While everyone in the car was obsessed with K-Pop, they all agreed that 25-year-old architect Hema was the undisputed “K-Pop encyclopaedia”.

A Korean entertainment fan for over 9 years now, Hema speaks of Korean superstars as though they’re close personal acquaintances. Her voice can be heard frequently raised in pure, unadulterated excitement as she shares lesser known tracks with the group. At one point as we were passing Kaveri Complex in Nungambakkam, Hema noted wistfully, “Only around other K-Pop fans can I really let loose and go crazy and be a proper fangirl. I’m having so much fun here, for a second I forgot I’m married.”

The K-Pop India Grand Finale was on at the really rather elegant Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on Harrington Road. The huge white concert hall in the recent past has hosted Auroville choirs, Rajasthani folk collectives and national string orchestras. On Saturday, July 30, white cloth tents sheltering stalls sprung up around the hall and were immediately packed with people sampling kimchi fried rice, banana milk, fried chicken, ramen, fluffy spiced rice cakes (that tasted exactly like spicy gnocchi) and sweet potato glass noodles. A big screen off to the side was showing popular Korean music videos (or MVs), and whenever a particularly well-loved MV came on, the crowd clapped, cheered and danced along to the youthful, urbane and wildly colourful videos.

Banana milk was a highly recommended favorite at the Korean Food Festival. (Sharanya Gopinathan)

Though the crowd had arrived from all over the country many of them clearly knew each other from past events. They stood around the venue, avidly discussing the latest episode of On The Way To The Airport and music artiste G-Dragon’s newest collaborations.

Everyone here knows Sanjay Ramjhi as the president and founder of the Dorama Club, a Chennai-based group of around 250 people who are all deeply dedicated to Korean culture.

As we were chatting, several people came up to him to shake hands, say hello and to ask him what he’s watching right now. Sanjay says he used to watch Japanese anime and film, but once he found Korean dramas online he was absolutely hooked.

“My passion for Korean culture made me look for jobs at the Korean embassy,” he says, “But then I realised I don’t know the language as well as I truly need to. So I enrolled at the Korea University in South Korea for six months, where I studied Korean for five hours a day. Now, I can read, write and speak Korean fluently, and I work as a translator and facilitator for Korean companies in Chennai, like Busan Bank and Hyundai.”

In his down time, Sanjay organises the Dorama Club’s events, which include quizzes, dances and games like the ones Korean entertainment stars play on hugely popular Korean “variety” television shows.

“Sometimes we even play K-Pop dumb charades!”

The club has a constantly buzzing WhatsApp group where Chennai-based fans share pictures, wallpaper images and news about K-Pop and K-drama. Ninety-eight98 percent% of the members of the group, Sanjay observes, are female. Looking around at the crowd, I noticed that it was indeed predominantly female, and the majority of the audience members there were in the 11 to 25 age bracket.

He has a few theories on why Indian men seem reluctant to admit to liking K-Pop (which involve them being “too macho”, in his opinion, to admit to it).

4.30 pm. The contest is about to begin, the hall is nearly packed to its 1,200-person capacity. The audience’s excitement and pitch were both reaching an unbelievable high by the time Eddy and Simba, guest judges and members of JJCC, took to the stage. (JJCC is a K-Pop group put together, surprisingly by Jackie Chan. In case, you wondered JJCC oddly stands for Jackie Chan Joint Cultures.)

The 14 finalists from the seven regional rounds (from Patna to Bengaluru to Sikkim) now took to the stage.

The acts were either group dances or solo singing performances. Although one all-girl group from Delhi, Rhythm Mix, managed to weave a bit of live singing into their dance act, much like real K-Pop stars do.

Mumbai-based group ‘Underdogs’ busting a move to music by BTS. (Sharanya Gopinathan)

Many of the groups used small props in their performances, like handfuls of glitter, party poppers, and jackets with letters on the back that spelt out “We <3 K-Pop”.

One group tried to spell out the same phrase using hand cards, but since the “We” and “<3” card were dropped accidentally in the course of the dance, it didn’t have quite the same effect.

Delhi-based group 3+4, which went on to win in the dance category, wore jackets and sneakers that lit up with glowing lights, and even used a video clip of them re-enacting a snippet from a BTS video in their performance, which the guest judges were visibly impressed by.

Three singers sang songs by reigning queen Ailee and three different groups danced to BTS tracks ‘Danger’ and ‘Boy in Luv’, but each time the line Kkwak jaba nal deopchigi jeone, meaning Hold me tight before I kiss you, the opening line of the ‘Boy in Luv’ chorus came around, the audience sent up frenzied cries anew.

While some groups were definitely better than others, it was equally clear that to some, this was more serious business than others: two of the participating groups were accompanied by actual group managers.

The guest judges, by the way, were delightful to watch. Clearly aware of their import there as “idols”, they took the effort to acknowledge, smile and nod at each participant that gazed rather yearningly into their eyes when they took to or left the stage, even offering up a thumbs up or two. When one of the judges, Simba, had to run out of the hall to use the loo, he made sure he timed it in a way that allowed him to acknowledge the participant leaving the stage yet greet the next act to come.

JJCC guest judges Eddy and Simba. (Sharanya Gopinathan)

Korean entertainment is fuelled by a culture of adoration, and the mania is part of the appeal. This “fangirling” obsession was on display when, at the end of all the performances, the other members of JJCC joined Eddy and Simba to take to the stage for a surprise performance, complete with perfectly co-ordinated dancing and hand held flashlights that they aimed at the crowd. The audience was screaming and waving their glow sticks in a frenzy that nearly blew the roof.

Once they finished, they took their bows, smiled adorably and were whisked offstage by their surly grey-jacketed manager, allowing the winners to be announced.

There was a bit of an upset when a member of the Mumbai-based runner up Underdogs burst into tears of sheer disappointment at losing to 3+4: for ardent K-Pop fans, missing out on the grand prize, which was a trip to Korea and a chance to perform at the World Culture Festival 2016, is a really hard blow to take. Priyanka, who channelled her inner Ailee in the vocal category, was all breathless smiles as she took first prize in the singing category. All participants and winners were happy to pose with the JJCC stars for pictures, and several flashing peace signs were seen all around.

All the winners of the K pop India Contest 2016 along with JJCC members Eddy and Simba. (Sharanya Gopinathan)

Korean entertainment has obsessive fans all over the world now, and it didn’t happen accidentally. The Korean Government understood the value of cultural export (apparently after seeing that Jurassic Park made more total revenue than 1.5 million Hyundai cars in 1994), and has spent millions on subsidies and government action in promoting a certain version of Korean culture all over the world for mass consumption.

Korean entertainment is largely a three-way between Korean drama, Korean music and variety shows, with intermingling stars. This combination produces multi-talented youth icons who, through reality TV-like “variety shows” and near-constant, highly curated social media updates, fans feel like they can connect with personally, leading to a kind of pop culture frenzy that’s hard to match.

It sells because it’s designed to be obsessive; the Internet, the easy availability of English subtitled versions of all the popular songs and dramas ensures that today, it isn’t just Koreans, but really everyone that’s buying.

After the contest, fans milled around the venue, talking over the events of the afternoon, consoling participants who hadn’t won and more importantly, waiting for one last glimpse of the JJCC stars. Several volunteers squabbled over who all would have the privilege of escorting the stars from the green room to their waiting car, ready to whisk them off to the Hyatt, and I was glad to see that my new friend Jayashree was one of the lucky few to be granted the honour.

Amidst a crowd of shrieking fans, the JJCC members were rushed out single file, hands on the next members’ shoulders, and accompanied by their ever-present manager. Jayashree came back flushed and breathless.

“Two selfies,” she reported smugly, “And in one, he even put his arm around my shoulder.” This was possibly better than a trip to Korea, and certainly worth the trip to Chennai.

(In arrangement with Grist Media)

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