Wed, May 11, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: ‘Korean Wave’ splashes over India’s Manipur


Student Bipilchandra sports a “Korean hairstyle” as he poses outside Kenon’s Parlour in Imphal, India, on Dec. 28 last year.

Photo: AFP

When separatist rebels in the remote Indian state of Manipur banned Hindi movies a decade ago, they had little idea it would trigger a cultural invasion from a country more than 3,200km away.

However, when Bollywood was forced out, the Koreans moved in.

In the markets of the state capital Imphal, shops are packed with DVDs of South Korean films and TV soap operas, as well as CDs of Korean pop stars, with a particular focus on preening boy bands.

Hairdressing salons are covered with headshots of Korean celebrities and offer a wide range of spiky, “Korean-style” cuts, which are hugely popular with young Manipuris of both sexes.

Teenagers also trawl through Gambhir Market, a three-story warren of tiny boutiques, for skinny jeans and other clothing trends inspired by Korean TV shows.

Even the language has made inroads, with Korean phrases like annyeong-haseyo (“hello”), kamsahamnida (“thank you”) and sarang-haeyo (“I love you”) peppering conversations in schoolyards and market places.

“When we’re back at boarding school, my friends and I practice our few phrases of Korean and often talk about what it would be like growing up in Korea,” female student Akshaya Longjam, 14, said.

“It just seems so much fun and everybody is good looking; the girls are pretty and the boys are so cute,” said Longjam, a dedicated fan of the Korean boy band Big Bang and its star singer G-Dragon.

At first glance, Manipur would seem the unlikeliest of takers for the so-called “Korean Wave” of pop culture that swept over China, Japan and much of Southeast Asia at the beginning of the last decade.

Tiny, landlocked and with a population of less than 3 million, Manipur borders Myanmar and is one of India’s “Seven Sisters” — seven northeastern states connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, entertainment for Manipuris was largely supplied by India’s dominant cultural force, Bollywood.

However, in 2000, a number of the multiple armed secessionist groups that have been active in Manipur since the 1960s ordered a ban on Hindi movies and Hindi satellite TV channels, in a professed bid to “protect” Manipuri culture.

Backed by threats to bomb recalcitrant cinemas and cable operators, the ban was extremely effective and remains in force today.

Desperate to fill the vacuum, cable operators experimented with whatever came to hand, including Arirang TV, a 24-hour, English-language network based in Seoul that began beaming in a diet of dramas and cultural features.

South Korea’s KBS World followed with its own stable of subtitled soap operas and, within a few months, Manipur was hooked.

“Watching Korean soaps and films takes me away from the realities of daily life in Manipur,” said Soma Lhishram, a 19-year-old college student. “We have a problem with water, electricity, roads ... you name it, but everything looks so perfect in Korea. It’s like a fantasy world.”

The attraction is partly a cultural one. The Mongol roots of ethnic Manipuris mean their physical features are far closer to those of Koreans than other Indians.

The family-oriented soap operas resonate strongly in what is a socially conservative state, while teen romance dramas have a mass following among the young.

Lhishram, a part-time actress, is a particular fan of the high school drama Boys Over Flowers and one of its heartthrob stars, Lee Min-hoo.

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