Stay for a while in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl and you start catching glimpses of South Korea. Travel around the state and the images emerge repeatedly  in the clothes, the hair styles, even the furniture.

In Champhai, the district that conducts most of the trade between Mizoram and Myanmar, business in fairness creams and hair colour is roaring. At her cosmetics shop which stocks both Indian and imported cosmetics, J Lalremruati says most customers favour foreign products. People here think they are not fair enough, she explains. “If the idea is to be more like the Koreans, then why would they buy Indian creams?”

While teenagers in Delhi and Mumbai mimic Jennifer Aniston’s hairdo in Friends, Mizoram's young people are looking east. “A girl in one of a Korean serial wore her hair as a bun to one side of her head,” said Marina, who works at an Aizawl restaurant. “My friends and I copied her for some time.” Periodically, she and her friends look for clothes like those worn by the actors in the serials.

Even the furniture in people’s homes is changing, says Lalnghinglova Hmar, joint editor of the largest-selling Mizo daily Vanglaini. People are buying furniture that resembles the sets they see in the Korean soaps. The state even has a store called Gangnam Style.

The immediate trigger for these changes is well known. In the last eight years or so, Mizoram, like the rest of the North East, has seen a large South Korean wave. Korean movies and television serials, dubbed in Mizo and broadcast every day by around 10 local TV channels, are the most watched programmes in the state these days.

What is less clear, however, is how this interest in Korean culture started.

The genesis of a boom

Some trace it back to an evening – about five or six years ago – when a local cable company played a DVD of a Korean serial. When the channel cut that telecast to switch to news, it found its switchboard lighting up. Viewers were calling to ask when the serial would resume. Others trace it back to a Korean film called The Classic, which entered India through Manipur and then spread across the North East, spawning interest in South Korean films. Yet others trace it back to 2001 when a Korean channel called Arirag become freely available across the North East.

But mere supply (or access) is not enough to explain the boom. Indian television has been around in the North East for a long time but it has not been as successful as the Korean programming.

One school of thought says Korean serials are popular because they touch – at least those dubbed into Mizo – upon themes like family drama, comedy and romance. They are very constructive, said Malsawma Sailo, founder of a television channel in Aizawl called Nauban.

He cites one of the most popular Korean serials in recent times – Yellow Boots.
“A woman is hit by a car and she dies. The leading lady, let us call her our heroine, is implicated and sent to prison. While she is in jail, her fiancé ditches her and marries someone else. However, our heroine is pregnant at the time – she is carrying the child of her fiancé – and so, she becomes a mother while in prison. However, the truth is that she has been falsely implicated in the accident. And the woman actually responsible for the accident is the one who has married her fiancé. And so, once she leaves prison, our heroine plots revenge.”

Why is it so popular? “There are a lot of scenes to shed tears over,” said Sailo, adding that the story shows how a family should behave.

But that plot seems as contrived and emotionally manipulative as any sitcom from any country on the planet. Besides, this does not explain why Mizoram went through a similar fascination with American and Hindi films earlier.

The real answer, clearly, lies elsewhere.

The Hindi and English boom

Perhaps the answer lies in office of Zonet, one of the two big cable companies in Mizoram. (The other is LPS.) The channel began showing dubbed Korean serials in 2009, two years after CDs of the serials had hit the local market.

Vanneitluanga, the programming head, looks much younger than his 48 years. He used to work at All India Radio till 2004, when he decided to start Zonet along with RK Lianzuala, a journalist who had worked with the BBC.

In a three-hour long conversation, Vanneitluanga traced the Korean boom back to an early decision to dub programmes into Mizo. In its initial days, Zonet had one channel gender-insensitively called Zawlbuk – the Mizo name for the traditional meeting hall for men. “It is not easy to produce a full-fledged film in Mizo,” he said. “It is expensive. At the same time, people are used to the production quality of channels like the BBC. Their sense of aesthetics is very high. We couldn’t have satisfied our own people.”

The easiest way to strike a balance, he says, was to translate: “Dubbing is easy. All we have to do is lip-sync.” In November 2004, Zonet began airing a dubbed version of Kasautii Zindagii Kay, an Indian soap which, at first glance, rivals Yellow Boots in the plot twists.

It became quite a craze, remembers Sailo. Soon, he said, “both LPS and Zonet were dubbing Kasautii. They would air it some days after Hindi channels aired it. But they would air the same episode on the same day. Magazines were featuring special columns transcribing the serial.”

The serial, Vanneitluanga explains, met a latent demand. “People wanted to read or watch something in Mizo.” It was a demand that Doordarshan, the national broadcaster, was unable to meet. Its Mizo programming lasted just 20-30 minutes a day.

Before long, dubbing of Hindi and English films was a booming business. LPS, Zonet and a third cable company, called Skylinks, were running their own translation services, dubbing Kasautii, then other serials like Karam Apnaa Apnaa, and English films like The Ten Commandments.

In 2008, Sailo, a father of two and a graduate in BA (Arts) from Lunglei, entered the dubbing trade. Till then, he had switched careers repeatedly – after his BA in the late 1980s, he opened a grocery store. In 1991, he became the principal of an English school. He shifted next to Aizawl, where he ran a cement shop. What that did not do well, he moved to Mamit district and ran an English school. Finally, in 2008, he handed the school over to others and moved back to Aizawl.

Malsawma Sailo in the room in his house where he dubs Korean serials. He has just two voice artists in his team. Whenever needed, he and his wife pitch in as well.

At this time, the cable industry in Mizoram had a lot of small players who ran cable networks in villages and towns. LPS, Zonet and Skylinks were present in the bigger towns.

Sailo began buying Hindi and English films from local DVD and CD shops, which he would then translate and dub. “In a month, we did three films.” He started by selling these to local operators in Aizawl for Rs 150 a DVD. Soon however he was getting calls from cable operators elsewhere in the state. By 2010, the number of his customers stood at 100 and his business – employing two voice artists, one editor and one translator – was notching monthly revenues of Rs 45,000.

Within a year, however, Sailo’s business was floundering. The reason: competition. “A lot of people were indulging in translation,” says Sailo. DVDs began going for Rs 100, then Rs 80.

By then, the Korean wave had already set in. By 2009, said Vanneitluanga, “DVDs of Korean serials had entered Aizawl. Some of these had English subtitles and people began seeing those. There were eight or nine local cable companies and five-six of them would show these serials. That is how this started.”

Sailo thinks the wave started earlier. “In 2007, the demand for the Korean serials was moderate. But by 2012, it was very high. Wherever we went, people were talking about these serials.”

This raises a new question. Why were undubbed Korean programmes doing better than dubbed English or Hindi ones?

A question of identity

To answer that question, Vanneitluanga referred to 1966. The Mizo National Front had rebelled against India and liberated Aizawl. “I was nine years old. I remember standing in a forest near Aizawl while the Indian Air Force was bombing Aizawl. We were told by Laldenga then – and we believed him – that a thlawhnavar [a white aeroplane] would come and drive these IAF planes away. None came.”

This, he says, was a turning point for the Mizos. “Before that, we thought we were westerners. We were born and raised in the lap of missionaries. And we used to think we were Britishers. In Zodin cinema hall, all the movies we saw were John Wayne, cowboys, western films. We felt they were very near to us. But gradually, we came to learn that the west is very far away – we were very remote, very ignorant. The missionaries were gone. We had to depend on India.”

The menu at JayJay, a Korean-style eatery.

This, he says, explains some of the fondness for the Koreans. “Our face is different from that of most Indians. There are ethnic differences – we are Christians.” For a while, he says, when Indian media came in, they had to dub what was available. “At the same time, we hate the Bollywood style of singing and dancing.”

By contrast, he said, “The Koreans look like us. There are cultural similarities like respecting the elders. At the same time, they are clean. Their facial structures are clean. The plots are conservative, ones that Protestants and Catholics can relate to. Even the way they talk, a slightly musical tone, is similar to ours.”

Listening to him, it sounded like the Mizos wished for affinity with a larger group. When asked about this, Vanneitluanga mentioned people from the North East who had moved to Israel believing themselves to be the lost tribes of Israel. Perhaps, he said, “This is because of where we are," he said. "On the western side of Mizoram, we see you. On the east, we see the Burmese Buddhists. Neither of you is us. We are an island in the Himalayan range.”

A question of affinity

In Mizoram, the Korean wave has had predictable and unpredictable outcomes. Between the Peiteis, Brus, Lais, Chakmas, Maras, Hmars and the Mizos, the state speaks many dialects. In the expanded Chin tribal area, which covers parts of Myanmar too, there are even more dialects. For all their speakers, there is no programming in their native language. This is partly due to economics – the populations are too small to support local programming.

For this reason, says Vanneitluanga, the dispersed Chin population, in Myanmar and outside, not just Mizoram, watches the dubbed Korean programmes. “I found people asking me for these when I went to Kuala Lumpur. And when I went to Singapore.”

Some worry that Mizo, riding on the Korean programmes, will swamp the smaller dialects. But the programming is changing Mizo too. “The normal Mizo way of speaking is soft and sing-song,” said Vanneitluanga. “In Korean, people speak faster. In dubbing, we have to lip-sync. So, we end up speaking faster too.” In this drive, he lamented, “Our beautiful descriptive phrases are going unused. They are decreasing as we do not have the time to describe as we would like to.”

Lallian Chhunga, an assistant professor in Mizoram University’s Department of Political Science, added: “The catch is also that the people who translate are not very good in literature. They use very colloquial street language and so the way we speak is changing.”

The endgame

The big question is what next.

When his dubbing business slowed down, Sailo moved to Zonet as a“partner. Both LPS and Zonet follow a strategy where they run three or so channels on their own – general entertainment, sports and religion. Apart from these, they have partners – individuals like Sailo – who run individual channels on their own. Sailo supplies 24-hour feeds to Zonet.

Take another local channel – Ainawn. It focuses on documentaries. It starts the morning with a dubbed episode of Discovery Health Science. At 7am, it has cartoons for children. Then, music and a documentary till 1 pm. An English film after that. And then, dubbed documentaries till 10pm, followed by another blockbuster movie till midnight. And then, another movie.

The channel was started because its founder, who did not wish to be identified, does not like Korean serials. “The reason for starting Ainawn is there is good programming – National Geographic, History Channel, etc – but people do not watch this as they cannot understand what is being said,” the founder told me.

What Sailo does is similar – a 24-hour feed, with a greater emphasis on entertainment. He scans sites like ipop, dovamax264 and hancinema to discover new soaps. How does he decide what will work? “We read the story online. And based on our experience, it is usually romance and family drama that works well.”

For all that, the business is starting to struggle now. As happened with the dubbing business, competition is rising fast.

Zonet and LPS do not pay the partner channels for content, so they make money by selling ad time. The advertisers are typically local shops. Telecom companies and banks do not advertise on these channels, perhaps because of the difficulty in ascertaining viewership.

Ad rates are ridiculously low. “A company can be channel sponsor or serial sponsor,” Sailo said. “We charge Rs 10,000 per month. The channel ad is shown six-seven times in a day. The serial ad is shown around the serial.”

Consider the economics. Ten sponsors equal monthly revenues of Rs 1 lakh. However, as the number of channels increase, ad rates have fallen to as little as Rs 5,000. “If the number of sponsors comes down to five, it will be hard to survive,” said Sailo. “We might have to start some other business.”

The boom of South Korean soaps illustrates two of the larger truths about jobs in Mizoram. In the state, jobs are hard to come by. This causes a pell-mell rush into new opportunities, followed by price warfare, making business cycles really short.

The low ad rates indicate how little money there actually is in the state economy, the result of the state government’s financial crisis. As it delays salaries, establishments across the state are reporting less business this year than earlier.

It’s unclear how long the Korean wave itself will last. It is mainly seen, says Vanneitluanga, by the educated rural people, some of the youth, and housewives. Those with better education prefer English.

“This is a wave," Vanneitluanga  said. "It is not permanent. I wonder how long it will last. Korean culture really has nothing to do with us – just like that white aeroplane. Our population is so small. And economic activity is so low. We have no money and so we cannot go to Korea. Our education is not fit enough to take us there. I don’t know where this goes.”

Maybe it will be English. Take Marina, who used to go looking for clothes similar to what actors wore in these soaps. She is bored now. “These serials are too long. These days, I watch music videos on VH1,” she said. Other youngsters are into anime.

Or maybe, as a recent trend suggests, these films will get more and more customised. In some cases, channels have changed the entire plot while dubbing, says Vanneitluanga, to make a film more locally relevant. He cited one scene where a contingent of marching soldiers are chanting – not 1, 2, 3, 4 – but the Mizo words for potato, squash, pumpkin and dal.

Like the old journalistic cliche goes, wait and watch.