If you get an invite on your Facebook account from a friend whose name, birthday and address resembles that of your long-lost friend from Manipur, but whose profile pictures doesn’t look like her but more like a Korean rap star, don’t be surprised. Go ahead and “Accept” the friend request because, believe it or not, Manipuris today are hooked on everything Korean.
From profile pictures on Facebook and Orkut accounts to mobile ringtones, haircuts, nicknames, lingo, cuisine, films and fashion, teenagers, young professionals and even housewives in the state have become ardent followers of the culture of a country that lies more than 2,000 miles away.
So much so that when Jeong Seok, 35, came to Imphal from the South Korean capital of Seoul recently to take part in a food festival, he felt completely at home. As he was setting up his stall, he says, “A girl walked up to me and spoke to me in Korean. I wondered if she was Korean but then many other girls came up and chatted to me in Korean.”
Seok’s ‘kimchi,’ traditional fermented Korean dish made of vegetables and ‘kim-bap,’ and other ingredients rolled in sheets of dried laver seaweed [gim]) were the highlights of the food fair. Seok was thrilled to discover the popularity of his culture here.
“It is so surprising. I am happy I came here,” he uttered.
Kh. Devita, 18, was one of the many who enjoyed Seok’s authentic ‘kimchi’ at the festival. Devita loves Korean food. And that’s not all. Like most teens in Imphal, she loves watching Korean TV channels and pirated Korean film and drama DVDs. Today, seeing the popularity of the language, Manipur University is mulling over whether it should start a Korean studies centre on its campus. Devita and her friends have already picked up the lingo from their favorite soaps.
“Boys Over Flowers’ is my favourite drama series. Gu Jyung Pyo and Ji Hoon are my favourite characters,” she giggles. Of course, she’s a loyal fan of Korean actors Lee Min Ho and Kim Hyun-Joong, who play the lead characters.
How has the Korean influence penetrated the everyday life of ordinary Manipuris? Social watchers attribute this to the time when in 2000 a number of underground groups active in the state had ordered a ban on Hindi movies and Hindi satellite TV channels, in a bid to stop the “Indianisation” of the local people.
After cinema hall owners and cable operators were threatened with dire consequences, the ban was enforced. But this affected the economy of the entertainment sector of the state. As the Manipur film industry, known for it’s world-class films, produces only a couple of 35 mm films a year, several cinema halls have faced closure while some have been turned into shopping malls or educational centres.
“For some time, we screened the few Manipuri films we had repeatedly, and sometimes even included Nepali, Assamese, Bengali and Bhojpuri movies. But there was no audience,” says Thaodem Momon, 61, who used to work as a caretaker at the Asha and Jina Halls, one of the most prominent twin movie complexes in Imphal.
While these have since been turned into an educational institute, Momon has been living off a small pension from his then employers. Some of the movie halls, which have managed to remain operational, now exist mainly by projecting new Manipuri films, low budget ‘digital’ ones shot with high definition cameras.
But in a desperate to fill this entertainment vacuum, cable operators experimented with whatever was available and that’s how dramas and cultural features aired on Arirang TV, a 24-hour, English-language network based in Seoul, made their way to homes in Imphal. Korea’s KBS World followed suit.
Today, one can get three Korean films and dramas DVDs, brought into Manipur through Myanmar, for just Rs 100, a good deal in the entertainment starved state. Homemaker Th. Indira loves catching all the latest episodes of her favourite Korean dramas. “After finishing up with the back-breaking drudgery of household work, I like relaxing with hours and hours of a sweet Korean romance,” she says, adding, “It is easy for us to follow the storyline with the English subtitles.”
‘Boys Over Flowers’ is a current favourite and runs into 25 episodes, each of about an hour.
While Jessica, 16, from Singjamei in Imphal West district too loves the soaps. What she is really crazy about are the songs. The teenager often serenades her boyfriend with the hit songs of Korean sensation Rain. “Neowa isseul ttaemada joshimseureopge maeumseokeuro (I do, I do wanna spend my life with you …)” she sings to him softly over the phone, as she ends their daily conversations with “sarange (I love you).”
Singer-actor Rain, who’s a hit among the young and old alike in Manipur, is also one of the most popular pin-up Korean stars. Others competing with him are Son Ye Jin, Lee Da Hae, Ku Hye Sun, Lee Min Ho and Kim Hyun-Joong. “Lee Da Hae is my dream girl,” sighs Jessica’s brother, R.K. Abothe, 18.
Initially, his mother, Shija, 49, could not understand the fuss her three sons and two daughters made over films and posters in a strange lingo. She recalls, “I would wake up in the middle of the night on hearing voices going ching-chong-chong and I would find my children huddled in front of the TV watching these Korean films and serials.”
So Shija decided to sit up with them one night and soon became an ardent fan herself. “Since I dropped out of school early, one of my children translates the English subtitles for me. Sometimes, when they are away at school, I watch by myself. I am able to follow the general story-line,” she says, adding the dramas are very addictive.
Says Shija, “Even if it takes you five days or a week to finish it, you are always keen to know what is going to happen next.”
While soap stars have a large following, there are fans like Thokchom Johny, 22, who was so inspired by singer-actor Kim Hyun Joong’s hairdo that he got one for himself.
This salesman, who works with a mobile dealership, says, “I took a DVD cover with his picture and showed it to my hair stylist.”
It’s not just Manipuris, who have been swept by this “Korean wave”, popularly termed as “Hallyu”; other Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam, too, have also succumbed to the charms of Korea’s soft power. Its cultural products work because they are an easy blend of tradition and modernity, which especially suits the tradition loving Manipuri sentiment just fine.
But social anthropologist Dr M.C. Arun, who teaches at Manipur University, is concerned, although he maintains that this influence may not be a long lasting one. “Some may say this is an impact of globalisation or opine that the Oriental similarity is the cause. But the truth is that Manipur’s society is in a state of transition. We have changed from the old value system and kingship but we are yet to evolve a new value system. Therefore, the inherent barrenness and void in us make us imitate others – first it was Bollywood and Hollywood, now it is Korean,” he explains. “It is not a healthy trend either. These young people are just aping stuff put out by KBS and Arirang channels that reflects Americanised Korean middle class culture, not the real Korea,” he adds.
Arun may well be right, but for now at least “Hallyu” has swept through the hearts and minds of the nearly 27 lakh population of small, landlocked Manipur.