Crash landing into K-dramas in 2020

Throughout 2020, it’s been fascinating seeing the shift in the conversation in the mainstream around K-dramas in particular, and Korean entertainment in general. The Oscar for Parasite and the one-inch-subtitle barrier comment from Bong Joon-Ho earlier this year (can you believe it was only this year?) set the tone for tens of thousands, if not lakhs of people discovering and falling headlong into the rabbit-hole of Hallyu.

Until now, dramas were rarely mentioned, if ever, in general conversation among “regular” folks. The conversations about dramas and gushing and agony over the dreaded second-half ruin happened regularly – but in communities like Dramabeans or Viki, or fan spaces on twitter where the primary aim was to talk about and discover like-minded drama-fans. I know, because I was an active participant in these spaces. Sometime during the second half of the year, I decided to move away from fandom spaces for a while. It felt like I was parceling different parts of my identity into different pockets – and while that worked splendidly for me in the past, it felt like something I wanted to try to move away from, as an experiment.

What was then unexpected was seeing the many, many, many people on my “regular” timeline – journalists, writers, everyday office workers -talking about dramas and what they were currently watching, gushing over them, and using GIFs that feature Korean actors and musicians liberally. There were multiple longform pieces trying to dissect the appeal of Hallyu in India, and yet more YouTube video reactions and reviews. What was this alternate timeline (heh) I was a part of suddenly?

(Note: This applies only to mainland India where dramas are still a relatively new phenomenon, compared to the Northeastern part of India, where they have been pretty much part of the mainstream culture since the late 90s.)

In the past, whenever dramas were talked about it was with a sense of slight defiance and defensiveness – “yes, I like these, so what?” and with a sense of talking into the void if you were having these conversations with someone who wasn’t a fan. You’d be met with puzzled looks (if they were being polite) or downright incredulity or, more often, sneers (if they were well-versed with the stereotypes around dramas). When you met someone who also claimed to watch dramas, you’d test the waters with a question like “Ohh, dramas, you mean like… Boys over Flowers?” and cement the friendship (or leave a wide gap) depending on their answer to that question.

This year, with the pandemic, Netflix’s aggressive algorithm pushing its shows at viewers, and the dearth of live-produced television from the rest of the planet (South Korea’s entertainment industry wasn’t as badly affected), more Indians crash landed into dramaland (pun intended) via Hyun Bin in Crash Landing on You than ever before. When I posted a K-drama meme on Instagram, a college friend I hadn’t spoken to in years DMed saying she was an avid fan now thanks to CLOY, and part of multiple Hyun Bin fan pages on Facebook! There’s a separate conversation (rant?) to be had about the new kind of Netflix drama fan and what this means for K-drama viewership, but Netflix India reported a whopping 370% increase in the viewership of K-dramas in the past year.

Personally, it was a year where I didn’t watch too many dramas by my usual standards. There were some dramas that I really enjoyed (Hospital Playlist, School Nurse Files, I’ll Find You on a Beautiful Day, Forest of Secrets 2), some that gave me company through some very lonely times (Extracurricular, Chocolate, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay) some that helped me stumble through my first heartbreak in what seems like forever (Into the Ring, My Unfamiliar Family) and like every year, some that I watched through to their very end, just don’t ask me why, (Record of Youth, TK:EM, More than Friends) and of course, more actors and actresses and writers added to my list of people to watch out for.

I’ve written about this before, but dramaland, more so than most other things I can think of, can become a place for endless distraction, and somewhat healing. Even when it is excessively commercial, it offers respite from Real Life, along with a dash of hope – and we could all use this in this dreadful year from hell.

If this is your first year in dramaland – welcome and hope you find lifelong friends (in fans around you to spazz over dramas with or in lovely drama characters) who help you power through whatever the next few years bring us. If you’ve been in this for longer, hello! and hope we get through what is apparently going to be a lean year for dramas the next couple of years going forward.

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Sadhana C

I'm interested in technology, culture, and the business of Hallyu. I currently work full time in tech and have previously reported on start-ups. In my free time I like to read fiction and learn languages.

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