"BOYS OVER FLOWERS,” says a girl behind me, jerking me out of my daydream. I have been here for quite a while, trying to decide which DVDs to pick from the lot spread out in front of me. More voices join hers, resulting in a lot of giggling. I turn to see a teenage girl holding a DVD that has on the cover a pretty girl with a part-scowling, part-scheming look on her face with four cute boys smiling in the background. Five more teenage girls—12th standard students at the Human Resource Development School—are standing around the one with the DVD and couldn’t be more amused. Between convulsive giggles, the 17-year-olds are flipping through the collection of pirated Korean DVDs at the Singjamei Supermarket in Imphal—films, dramas, serials and music albums. Boys Over Flowers is a popular Korean series about a beautiful girl’s tryst with the town’s four richest and most spoilt boys, known as the F4.
Ten years ago, teens in Manipur knew nothing about Korea beyond what they read in books and news. Who was to know Korean culture would eventually have such an impact in the Northeast Indian state? If you told someone then that teens in 2010 would be fawning over TV serials from Seoul, no one would have believed you. Yet here they are. How did this happen? The reasons can appear as unlikely as the results. But it began, in a sense, with a ban on Bollywood.
In September 2000, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), one of the oldest armed secessionist groups in India’s Northeast periphery, banned Hindi films and Hindi satellite channels in the four districts that make up the Manipur valley. The ban, it said, would stop the ‘Indianisation’ of the state. Hindi films were declared obscene and said to portray feudal values typical of India’s Hindi-speaking heartland, and thus had the potential to undermine Manipuri values. An RPF spokesman went as far as threatening to bomb any cinema screening Hindi movies.
The RPF leadership consisted of guerrillas trained in China at the peak of Beijing’s support for the Leftist insurgents in the Northeast the 1960s and 70s. They had already enforced a total ban on drugs, alcohol and pornography in Manipur. As part of the drugs ban, RPF cadres organised large-scale attacks, with some leading to killing and other punishments to many drug barons, dealers and users.
The success or failure of bans in Manipur was decided by the kind of fear and respect a particular organisation evoked. In 2001, when another armed opposition group, the KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup), called for a ban on women wearing ‘mainland’ attire of saris, salwar-kameez, etc, they were defiant. However, the same group’s imposed dress code for schoolgirls in 2005 was successful. Even today, schoolgirls of eighth standard and up wear a version of the traditional phanek, the sarong-type dress local to Manipur.
After the Hindi movie ban in 2000, many cinemas were served notices by the State government for not screening Hindi films. On 31 October 2000, authorities in Imphal West had asked cinema owners to explain why their theatres were following the directive of a banned organisation. The authorities warned the owners that failure to respond to the notice would invite cancellation of their licences. Apparently, the then Manipur State Congress Party-led coalition government could not provide enough security to cinema owners to enable them to defy the diktat. Local cable operators were having an equally hard time. A rediff.com report of 16 October 2000 says, “Both the primary cable networks operating in Imphal [have been] shut down indefinitely by the RPF for violating its ban order on Hindi films and programmes. The Front seized equipment from the operators.” They had broadcast a Hindi film the previous day. According to the report, on 15 October, members of the paramilitary Assam Rifles had forced the cable networks to air Hindi films. “Assam Rifles and the Manipur State government officials have, however, denied the charge,” said the report.
Caught between the two forces, theatre-owners and cable operators in Manipur had no room to manoeuvre, and their lives were more valuable than the films they showed. They tried to salvage their businesses with re-runs of old Manipuri films, Hollywood films and some regional Indian—non-Hindi—films, but could not woo audiences back.
THE BAN ON HINDI ENTERTAINMENT came as a hard reality to me. I had grown up watching with excitement Shammi Kapoor going ‘aa-ya ya suku suku’ on Doordarshan’s Sunday evening film programme. Being the unchallenged expert of Hindi antakshri, my visit home in 2001 was full of anxiety and disbelief—even speaking or singing in Hindi had become a no-no.
I had left Manipur in the summer of 1995, and came home only for quick visits during summer vacations. In my last two years of school (1994-95) in Imphal, I had acquired a serious habit of skipping school to watch Hindi films in theatres. Looking back, all this adventure carries a completely new meaning. It was as if I knew the experience would be one I’d be deprived of later. I had no idea then that something as simple and routine as watching a Hindi film in a theatre would become the stuff of folklore I’d relay to my niece and nephew, complete with the ‘Once upon a time in Manipur... ’ lead-in. During my 2000 visit, I noticed Hindi music being played secretly at home and in other private spaces. Elders often cautioned to keep the volume very low. The general advice was not to play any Hindi music: some people who had been caught were punished. Hindi audio and videocassettes had been confiscated from shops and video parlours and burnt. I listened, not able to comprehend the abruptness of this new way of living. Upon speaking so much as one Hindi word in public, I’d look around to ensure no one heard it. The fear was real.
And so it was, in this entertainment vacuum following the Hindi ban and without a decent replacement, that something unexpected happened in Manipur: the Koreans moved in. In the early noughties, Arirang TV began beaming into many living rooms in the Valley. The Korean station was readily accepted as a refreshing change from the South Indian, Bhojpuri, Nepali and other regional Indian entertainment cable operators had been experimenting with until then. Arirang’s rise was almost like a fairytale. The channel made Korean culture a household aspiration. Then came KBS, broadcasting mostly serials from the South Korean peninsula. Korean entertainment slowly gained a stronghold in Manipur and started to influence mainstream culture.
SAMOM TOMBI, A 37-YEAR-OLD businesswoman in Imphal, is a big fan of Korean serials. “I [once] spent three days watching Korean serials non-stop and stopped only after I felt dizzy and got an acute headache,” she tells me. What she likes most about these serials, she says, are the plots and the “cleanliness”—meaning they are family friendly. She feels the storylines are very close to real life, as opposed to the exaggerated representations in Hindi serials. “The characters seemed more real, their lives and the incidents are more or less the kind that can happen to us, too. It’s almost like watching a glamourised presentation of our own lives with beautiful people doing what we would do.” The frequent, long power outages in Manipur do not deter her. “I use the generator to ensure that my Korean time is not interrupted.” Incidentally, her husband is locally called Korea. Is that an endearment inspired from her fascination with Korean entertainment? “No, that was the name [he was] given by his parents long before Korean entertainment came to Manipur. I am happy my husband lives up to his name literally and practically. He makes sure that he buys me the latest Korean serials during his trips to Moreh!” Upon learning I had not yet been initiated into the world of Korean serials, having just bought my first two DVDs, she recommends Boys Over Flowers. “But you should start by watching short Korean romantic films. That will make you want to fall in love and think of marrying,” she tells me as a parting advice.
Along with the cultural proximity, the easy availability of films from South Korea contributed to Manipur’s ‘Korean Invasion.’ These DVDs come from the Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh—a repository for other imported, often illegal products from China, Korea, Thailand, etc.
Geeta Sagolsem, a young girl I met at the DVD shop at Singjamei Supermarket, said she has had to restrain herself from watching Korean serials. “It’s very addictive and I get seriously involved in them.” Another regular Korean serial buff, who did not want to be named, said there were some soft-porn serials available too, and that they were done “aesthetically, with sensible and often beautiful storylines and [the] right amount of titillation.” Bursting into laughter, she added, “It’s two-in-one.”
A salesman at a busy DVD store at the supermarket says young girls and housewives make up most of the Korean serial viewership, adding that the demand for films and music albums is almost non-existent now. The DVDs cost 45 rupees, pack in nine seasons and run for a total of 20 hours—many days worth of entertainment. Though he can’t quote any figure, the salesman says it has been a profitable business. He has already watched most of the DVDs in the store. He says it helps him recommend the best to his customers. Romance, comedy and drama top the demand. He suggests Stairway to Heaven. From the latest serials to older ones, Korean serials fill the shelves, while the sections for Manipuri films are half-empty. The younger generation, trying to look cool and fashionable, prefers the chic Korean stars.
I WONDER IF THIS FASCINATION with the Korean way of living has come only from the culture vacuum in Manipur in the early part of this decade, or if there is more to it. Although Hindi films were never banned in Manipur’s hill districts, the fascination with Korean entertainment and fashion is still just as strong. And the interest is not restricted to Manipur. The youth of neighbouring states such as Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are also being ‘Koreanised.’ Ratika Yumnam, a media student in Bangalore who hails from Manipur, said people from the Northeast in Bangalore were crazy about Korean sitcoms. “My cousin here is glued to Korean sitcoms, Korean hairstyles, Korean dressing styles, Korean cuteness… It’s all over the place.” Even Bollywood has tried cashing in on the popularity of Korean entertainment with remakes of their popular films like A Moment to Remember (U, Me Aur Hum) and My Sassy Girl (Ugly aur Pagli).
How is this phenomenon perceived in Korea? Pravavati Chingangbam, a research professor based in Seoul, says, “They are mildly amused about it and happy of course. But they are certainly not surprised, because it is not a new phenomenon.” Before taking over Manipur, the Korean wave had already swept across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, etc. The Chinese have a term for this cultural export: Hallyu. It is a collective term used to refer to the growth of Korean pop culture, encompassing everything from music, movies, drama to online games and cuisine. Hallyu has invaded the entertainment scene even in Iran, where Korean dramas are telecast as soap operas. Hallyu’s selling points are said to be the ability to provide entertainment that is hip yet grounded in traditional values, which, it’s been more than proven, suits Asian sentiments and values just fine.
The fascination with Korea is slowly transcending entertainment and culture in Manipur. More and more students are heading to Korea to further their education. Eleventh-standard student Manjina Oinam says her dream is to go to Korea to study medicine. Why Korea? “I don’t know,” she says, laughing nervously, “but I want to go to that place and I can think of going there only with a purpose. So I want to go and study there.” Chingangbam puts the trend in a perspective:
There is an increasing number of people from Manipur (and also the rest of India) heading to Korea for school. Arirang alone could not have led to this increase. I think that Arirang brought about the awareness of Korea and stirred desire in the minds of young people to visit it. However, this coincided with a few other factors like the newly acquired ‘developed country’ tag Korea has been trying to build with a positive image on the global platform. Several professors, especially in science and technology, have excellent funding from the government to carry out research. Often they do not have enough local manpower. Getting Indian students is a good option for them since they are usually well-trained and cheap to hire.
Ronid Chingangbam, a research scholar at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi, visited Seoul early this year and said his first impression was the people’s stark ‘sameness’ in their physical appearance. “Unlike India, everyone looks the same. I like the sameness in appearance and the girls were beautiful,” he says. “What puts Korea ahead of India is the cleanliness and peace and, most importantly, everyone drinks Soju there. Life was easy, you don’t have to deal with taxi/auto drivers who will overcharge you and what I liked the most is that girls got drunk at night
and shouted on the streets. That made me realise how sick India is!”
Bans and diktats have become an everyday reality in Manipur, given the prolonged state of conflict. Vacuums are commonplace and the need to fill them will not go away. That said, as access to the world outside the valley becomes easier through the internet and mobile phones, edicts to preserve cultural identity may not hold the same power they did ten years ago. Today, Hindi film DVDs are easily rented and bought for private viewing on trips outside the Valley. Still, Bollywood can’t touch Korea in Manipur—a most unforeseeable result of that RPF ban in 2000.
And the Korean influence has spread to areas outside entertainment. Manipuris see physical similarities between themselves and Koreans, and resonate with the idea of being hip while remaining grounded in traditional values. Today, phrases like anna saiyo (hello), watuke (what to do), waju waju (yes) and sarang hae (I love you) are essential youth slang in Manipur. Eating with chopsticks is fashionable and traditional rice plates are being replaced with bowls like those used in the Far East. In Manipur, Korea is here to stay.