Desi Young Love Stories 💜

Korean dramas are seeping into family TV time in India’s smaller cities and towns. And they’re changing the way stories of young love are made for the Gen-Z Indian on TV and online.

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This week, let’s talk about love stories. Fans of the Korean musical sensation BTS will know the purple heart is a commonly used symbol for love, trust, and support. Korean culture has had a powerful impact on Indian audiences, carving a space especially among Gen-Z audiences with their music and, now, their K-dramas.

Now, we’re seeing the second-order effects of this ‘Hallyu Wave’. Indian films have long been associated with the Love Story™. The hero and the heroine meet, fall in love, face insurmountable odds, and fight against them to unite (or perhaps perish in the pursuit of love).

But relatable stories of young love on television have changed, not least because technology has transformed the way young people meet, fall in love, and build a relationship. Older (Hindi-speaking) Indian millennials may have fond memories of ’90s TV shows like Just Mohabbat or Hip Hip Hurray, and younger ones may have grown up watching MTV Splitsvilla or Dill Mill Gayye.

Today, producers are making stories of young love, mostly for OTT platforms. So, are Gen-Z folks and their families in smaller cities and towns not watching love stories in their local language on TV anymore?

They are. It’s just that they’re nearly all Korean.

K-dramas and the search for desi young love

Ravi Sharma/Unsplash

Korean dramas have already been popular among urban Indian audiences for a long time. Now, they’re seeping through to traditional audiences who haven’t ditched the TV for streaming just yet.

“Non-English consumption of Korean dramas has gone up,” Anil Khera, founder and CEO of Mumbai-based production house One Take Media, told The Impression. One Take Media owns the India rights to a vast library of Korean shows, which it dubs and distributes in Indian languages. It also operates a (mostly) K-drama OTT platform of its own called Playflix.

“When OTT platforms went from being a niche to penetrating Tier 2 and Tier 3 audiences, we decided to dub all our Korean shows in Hindi. Now, we are taking it to Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and also exploring Bangla and northeast Indian languages,” he added. One Take Media’s clients range from TV channels, OTT aggregators of satellite TV providers, OTT platforms such as MX Player, and now, free ad-supported TV services such as Samsung TV Plus.

Since the initial days of bringing Korean IP to India (2016-17), Khera said the interest in dubbed K-dramas has risen dramatically. The first such spike in interest was during the lockdown and pandemic years (2020-21), when urban households began watching their children’s favourite Korean family dramas and love stories.

Since then, TV broadcasters are signing up for more Korean content. Tamil general entertainment channel Puthuyugam TV airs dubbed Korean dramas for its audience, while TV aggregators have a vast library of Korean shows or even a channel dedicated entirely to dubbed Korean dramas (including Airtel and Samsung TV Plus). Zee’s Gen-Z-focused channel Zing airs original Hindi shows focused on young love, but their biggest draw is the latest Korean dramas dubbed in Hindi. And if one were to go by their social media presence, they’re almost entirely marketing themselves as a channel for K-dramas in Hindi. An executive in the TV industry told The Impression that a to-be-launched Telugu general entertainment channel is also licensing Telugu-dubbed K-dramas for its programming.

“Broadcasters used to licence Korean content for a couple of months, but now they are signing them for up to a year,” said One Take Media’s Khera. “Mostly, general entertainment channels are building slots for dubbed versions of Korean shows in their regular programming, rather than launching a separate channel for them outright.”

General entertainment is TV’s largest genre when it comes to viewership, ad money, and the number of channels. In 2022, 72% of all TV content was made for general entertainment channels; about a fourth of it was in Hindi, as per the FICCI-EY Media & Entertainment report (pdf).

The demand for dubbed Korean dramas has grown so much that rights owners and production houses are scrambling to secure voiceover artists and sound studios. One Take Media said it now has vendors on retainer contracts who exclusively work on dubbing their K-dramas. Dubbing needs have caused other issues as well. Last month, Netflix irked fans when it postponed the release of two hot new K-dramas because their Hindi dubs weren’t immediately available, The Hindu reported. Episodes of the show released in one go in all other geographies.

For Korean shows about young love to become a part of Indian-language general entertainment signals a shift in their popularity. They’re no longer just a craze among young, urban, English-subtitles-watching streaming users. Regular Indians watching TV together with their families are also bingeing on them between episodes of their favourite local soap operas.

In hindsight, this is a no-brainer. Korean shows feature many more cultural similarities to Indian setups compared to shows from the US: conservative families, an urban-rural divide, and relatively shyer courtships. K-dramas are meant to be family entertainers, with characters seldom using explicit language, getting ‘too intimate’ with each other, or shown smoking and drinking, as is common in ‘edgy’ Indian streaming originals.

More importantly, compared to Indian ‘heroes’ in films and TV, Korean dramas offer a more progressive model of the male lead.

“Look at the way the boyfriend takes care of the girlfriend in Korean shows,” said Khera. “The boy is very caring, very gentle, very understanding. Girls really like that, they dream about boys like that. Also, the people in these shows are very young, very urban, very fashionable. The shows are aspirational.”

A model for ‘Young Love’

That aspirational quality for young people in relatively smaller cities and towns is also coming to stories of young love made in India. Among recent such shows are Pocket Aces’ Crushed and Sikhya Entertainment’s Gutar Gu, which depict young boys and men as caring and chivalrous rather than macho and ‘protective’ in the way such relationships are usually depicted in mainstream Indian pop culture. Also, both shows were set in smaller cities (Lucknow and Bhopal, respectively).

“We did a lot of primary research with young people, talking to audiences as they grow on your channel,” Aditi Shrivastava, co-founder of production house Pocket Aces, told The Impression. “The idea was that there is a lot of sibling-ness to relationships nowadays because you are figuring out life together. So, the intimacy and sex angle is actually really low in our show; the majority part of it is these other things. You’re figuring out how to expand your career together. In Crushed, you’re figuring out how to pass your exams together and do well in life.

Pocket Aces’ sub-brand Dice Media first became popular in 2016 with its hit romantic drama show Little Things, which dwelled on the daily ups and downs in the lives of a live-in couple, a rarity still in Indian society even among affluent, urban Indians.

This emphasis on ‘clean’ content that is still relatable for young people—who are online but live with conservative families in smaller cities—has made these shows a hit on streaming platforms, said Shrivastava. “You have parents who watch the shows. There is always a subtle, progressive push in all of our content without being preachy.”

Those subtle hints of progressivism become aspirational for smaller-town youngsters watching these love stories. “The idea is that when you are watching a conversation in a romance show, you should forget what the setting is because these conversations are universal,” said Shrivastava. “A couple in Varanasi may not be in a live-in relationship, but when they watch Dhruv and Kavya (from Little Things) discussing their relationship issues, the ‘live-in’ relationship is the aspirational part. All the other arguments, the stress of your job, the pressure of being long-distance—that is relatable to everybody who is young and in love.”

So, you have relatable stories of young love with a dash of aspiration, but ‘clean’ enough for the whole family to watch together. This is why traditional TV audiences are so drawn to K-dramas, even dubbed in the regional language of their choice, said One Take Media’s Khera. Hindi film producers, too, have been scouting projects that promise an all-in “family entertainer”, believing them to be safe bets in a tough box office (I wrote more about the strategy in this edition of The Impression).

Local web show producers aren’t just importing the winning K-drama formula, they’re also remaking the shows themselves. Last year, Pocket Aces acquired the rights to remake the Korean romantic hit Something In The Rain. The show is still being written, and casting will begin shortly.

“People have the misconception that if a story is simple, why does one need to adapt a foreign IP,” said Shrivastava. “But you are adapting a proven IP where the nuances of the character are already thought out. I would argue that in this genre, where the characters drive the story and not the plot, getting these nuances right is even more important.”

Television is still India’s largest medium of entertainment, but India’s young aren’t drawn to it. The FICCI-EY report quoted above found that during the pandemic years, TV viewership among 15-21-year-olds fell by 17% (a little higher than the overall drop in TV viewership in India). But Korean shows have their extremely elusive attention, and they’re also making their way into family TV time.

Perhaps that’s what TV needs to bring this generation of the young back to it: the sensitive, simple love story inspired by the best of Korean entertainment.

Last Scroll Down📲


Buyer, beware: The United States’ Federal Trade Commission has new guidelines on how brands should inform customers when they’ve paid a celebrity, influencer, or even a random buyer for a favourable review. Bottomline: ‘#ad’ on a caption isn’t enough. Influencers will need to replace disclaimers tucked away in the text with prominent, “unavoidable” texts within their videos. The FTC also wants to ban common practices such as suppressing negative reviews online. Back home, market regulator Sebi is finalising a discussion paper on guidelines for finfluencers.

Lost cause: Twitter lost its case against the Indian government last week. The Karnataka High Court dismissed its plea challenging the Indian government’s orders to take down tweets in the country. The court has also imposed a ₹50 lakh (~$61,000) fine on the social media company. Twitter had argued that these takedown notices don’t comply with India’s own IT Act. Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk said in a recent interview that upholding absolute free speech in countries like India wasn’t possible without endangering the company’s employees.

Too much, didn’t watch: We’re bursting at the seams with content. Variety reports that almost all major FAST (free, ad-supported TV) services have added more channels since the start of 2023. Three of them had no channels a year and a half ago; now, they have more than 400 combined. Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw argued last week that traditional entertainment companies in the US may have permanently ceded ground to new media firms as the sheer volume of content being produced overwhelms audiences and divides their attention.

Down a notch: India’s national men’s cricket team finally has a new lead sponsor. Fantasy gaming app Dream11 is replacing beleaguered edtech startup BYJU’S on the blue jersey. Dream11 has reportedly paid a relatively paltry ₹358 crore (~$44 million) after BYJU’S ended its sponsorship contract a few months early. Last year, the BCCI had reportedly met to discuss the ₹86 crore (~$11 million) that BYJU’S allegedly still owed the cricketing body.

Copycat: While Twitter fights fires, Meta is grabbing the opportunity. It is launching a Twitter-like competitor called Instagram Threads this Thursday. Once live, Threads will join a list of would-be Twitter replacements, including Bluesky (backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey), Mastodon, and Indian app Koo. Meanwhile, Twitter began limiting how many tweets an account can see in a day, driving droves of users away to Bluesky and Mastodon.

Trumpet 🎺


Can cringe be cool? What if it raised (and sank ratings) and even launched a merchandise business? Just ask Prakash Kumar aka Puneet Superstar aka Lord Puneet, the most prolific face of India’s meme culture.

Lord Puneet has been making videos since India had TikTok, but he shot to fame for his short, strange, meme-able short videos. In fact, many often embody that mad, self-destructive urge called ‘l’appel du vide or ‘A Call to the Void’. His videos are among the most popular meme formats on Indian social media.

Puneet Superstar has graduated from nearly three million followers on Instagram to a record-breaking appearance on reality TV show Bigg Boss OTT, where he was eliminated in just 24 hours. It has only fuelled his rise from the margins of meme culture to mainstream popularity. Reports suggest audience interest in Bigg Boss OTT on JioCinema may have slumped after his exit. And Puneet Superstar has his own line of ‘cringe’ T-shirts featuring iconic moments from his meme career, including the video that started it all: Lord Puneet screaming into the camera riding pillion on a bike.

For what it’s worth, the tees are priced at a premium, and one is already sold out. Could this be the beginning of the first successful consumer brand launched by a massy Indian influencer?

PS: this is a great early interview with Puneet Superstar on the Anurag Minus Verma podcast from 2021, just around the time he started to become a phenomenon.

That’s all this week. If you enjoyed reading The Impression, please share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. And please write to me anytime at [email protected] with thoughts, feedback, criticism or anything you’d like to see discussed in this space. I'd love to hear from you.

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