More than just BTS: ‘Hello Hallyu’ podcast explains the megawave of Korean pop-culture

Nirupama V and Sadhana C speak to superfans, researchers and fellow podcasters to examine the popularity of Korean entertainment

Three years ago, Sadhana C was at the Inox in Kachiguda to watch the premiere of South Korean pop (k-pop) band BTS’s documentary Burn The Stage. She was expecting a sparsely populated hall. She didn’t think people in India, least of all in a Hyderabad suburb, would make a beeline for a documentary on a Korean boyband. But what she saw at the cinema surprised her.

The hall was packed. One of the fans had sneaked in a portable speaker; before the film began, they played their favourite BTS tracks. Some danced. Some waved flashlights during scenes from concerts. The atmosphere was akin to a Telugu superstar’s first-day show. That’s when Sadhana realised the extent of k-pop following in India.

Her friend, Nirupama V, meanwhile, has been into Korean shows (k-dramas) since 2012. She started watching them during college in Madurai. There was a small circle of friends with whom she could discuss k-dramas. But when she moved to Chennai two years later for her post-graduation diploma course, most of her classmates mocked her for watching them. So, for the next few years, she stopped talking about them.

Then, in 2020, she noticed a sudden surge in k-drama followers. Her assumption was correct. Netflix reported that their audience for k-dramas in India increased more than 370 per cent from 2019 to 2020.

So, Nirupama and Sadhana — both former journalists — decided to narrate the story of the Korean pop culture through a podcast.

Nirupama V and Sadhana C | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Hello Hallyu (produced by The Swaddle), in six 30-something-minute episodes, explores different aspects of Korean entertainment.

‘Hallyu’, as Sadhana says in the podcast, is “a term coined to explain the popularity of Korean entertainment throughout the world. It translates to [mean] ‘the Korean wave.’”

The wave is a result of the country’s political upheaval. South Korea, in 1988, had just emerged from military rule. The new government wanted to divert people’s attention from the unrest as Seoul geared up to host the Olympics that year.

“So, they started promoting culture. And that involved k-drama, Korean pop, and k-cinema,” explains Vyjayanti Raghavan, a Professor of Korean Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in the podcast. “Largely, the dramas caught on in China, Taiwan and Japan.”

It wasn’t long before it reached India. In 2000, the RPF (Revolutionary People’s Front) and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) banned Bollywood films in Manipur. Two things filled this sudden vacuum in entertainment: Manipuri cinema and k-dramas, which entered from neighbouring Myanmar, where it was already popular.

Hello Hallyu reccos

  • K-dramas: Reply 1988, Because This Life Is My First, My Mister, Stranger (Forest Of Secrets), School Nurse Files
  • K-pop: IU, Day6, NCT Dream, BTS, Blackpink

“We used to stay in hostels and didn’t usually get to see TV often. But our seniors brought CDs of Korean dramas. So, we got to watch. Later, we used to sneak outside our neighbour’s house, peeping through their window while they were watching those dramas,” Subra Chakma, a fan from Mizoram, recalls in the podcast her introduction to Korean entertainment in the early 2000s.

Hello Hallyu also features a long-time fan from the South. Nirupama’s 58-year-old uncle has been watching k-dramas for 16 years now. KBS World, the Korean equivalent of Doordarshan, used to show dramas with subtitles in Tamil Nadu. That’s how he started watching. And hasn’t stopped ever since.

“I’m not very close to my older relatives because we don’t share any common interests. But with this uncle, whenever we meet at some family function, I would find 10 minutes to ask him what he’s watching these days,” says Nirupama.

From these rare sightings in the early 2000s, fans of Korean entertainment in India multiplied enough to throng a cinema hall in Hyderabad for a BTS documentary.

“It’s great to see that a lot of people realise the value of Korean entertainment. But I am also like, ‘Where were you guys all this while?’" laughs Nirupama, recalling her days as an almost underground fan.

For Sadhana, too, making the podcast reinforced a sense of community among k-pop and k-drama fans. “I’d seen this on ‘stan Twitter’ (a community of Twitter users that obsessively discusses celebrities). But as we interviewed people for the podcast, I realised that it’s a lot more prevalent.”

Despite calling themselves superfans, Nirupama and Sadhana dispassionately examine all aspects of fandom. The sixth episode of the podcast, for instance, talks about overconsumption and obsession. As with most things, Korean entertainment, too, has a toxic fan culture online. When Sadhana retweeted a slightly negative review of BTS’ latest soundtrack, she was called “a wannabe fan” among other things.

Hallyu followers, however, aren’t always nasty. Some hold donation drives. Some end up learning Korean. Some are just happy about being part of a community. And, some, like Nirupama and Sadhana, make infotainment podcasts.

(Hello Hallyu is available on theswaddle.com and other major podcast platforms)

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