Wrath Of The Khans: Bollywood’s Popularity Rising In Both North And South Korea

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Shah Rukh Khan
Shah Rukh Khan

The biggest film star in India, Shah Rukh Khan, plans to make a visit to South Korea by January 2014 in tandem with a journey to India contemplated by South Korean president Park Geun-hye, to beef up bilateral ties between the two Asian nations. Meraneed.com, an Indian entertainment website, reported that a few months ago Seoul named Shah Rukh Khan as a kind of goodwill ambassador to upgrade cultural relations between the states, after pursuing the actor for months before he accepted. 

“The popular Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan is going to be appointed as the Public Diplomacy Ambassador soon,” Joon-gyu Lee, the South Korean ambassador to India, said at a conference at the time, Shah Rukh has already appeared in advertisements for South Korean automaker Hyundai Motors for the past 10 years. Ambassador Lee also said that South Korea plans to open more Korean Cultural Centers in India beyond the one they have established in New Delhi.

(Bilateral trade between South Korea and India total about $18 million -- the countries would like to more than double that figure to $40 billion by 2015.)

In recent years, Bollywood -- Mumbai-based Indian commercial films replete with handsome heroes, beautiful damsels, songs and dances and happy endings -- has become quite popular in South Korea. Bollywood actors including the aforementioned Shah Rukh Khan, as well as his peers Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, have become well known on the Korean peninsula.

The Times of India newspaper reported late last year that while South Koreans generally enjoy Bollywood fare, some think the films drag on too long and that they feature too many musical numbers that unduly prolong the cinema experience. "Most [South Korean] fans want shorter Hindi films. Many [South Korean] theatres also don't accept long movies because it brings down the number of shows," said South Korean film critic Kwak Young-Jin. The Times noted that South Korean films typically run less than two hours, while Bollywood movies can last three hours or ever longer.

However, some South Korean cinema fans (perhaps the minority) actually prefer the lengthier offerings from India. "When [Bollywood film] ‘Three Idiots’ was edited by twenty minutes to make the film more suitable to local taste, it prompted a lot of complaints from fans. Consequently, the original version was restored. In fact, some theatres screened both versions," Kwak added. Indeed, the two most successful Bollywood films in South Korea -- "Three Idiots" (starring Aamir Khan) and "My Name Is Khan" (starring Shah Rukh Khan) each clocked in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

South Koreans also seem to favor light comedies and romantic films, rather than action films like "Don2" and "Robot," both of which flopped on the peninsula. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the market for Bollywood in South Korea is dominated by women between the ages of 20 and 40. "Some movies also fail because they are not promoted properly," said Hee Ju, managing director of a company that distributes Hindi-language movies in South Korea. The Times also said that while Hindi films are generally not available in most video shops, many fans simply download the movies from the internet while others have formed informal fan clubs and groups to watch the films together.

The 2008 release of a film called "Black" by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (three years after it debuted in India) is believed to have sparked an interest in Bollywood in South Korea. ("Black" was an emotional drama about a blind and deaf girl and inspired by the life story of Helen Keller.) "Many Koreans sympathized with ‘Black’ because it was about a woman who overcame her disability and was able to succeed in life. Such movies that deal with humanism will garner positive response from the Korean audience," said minister of culture, sports and tourism, Choi Kwang-shik.

Another popular film was "Tare Zameen Par" ("Like Stars on Earth") -- a film about a dyslexic boy -- that Aamir Khan both directed and starred in. "'Taare Zameen Par' was loved by the educational sector which saw a lot of positives in its theme. It got a lot of positive feedback," said Kwak.

Bollywood has also apparently crossed the grim borders into remote, isolated impoverished North Korea. Indeed, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have even become ensnared in the endless political battle between South and North Korea -- complicated by New Delhi’s diplomatic ties with both countries, which were split apart by civil war more than 60 years ago. The Calcutta Telegraph reported that the awarding of an honorary goodwill ambassadorship to Shah Rukh Khan by South Korea has ruffled feathers in its northern neighbor.

Cultural officials in Pyongyang recently screened Aamir Khan’s "Taare Zameen Par" to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations between New Delhi and North Korea. The film was shown in a function jointly organized by the Indian embassy and the North Korea’s Cultural Committee for Relations with Foreign Countries. The audience comprised members of North Korea’s foreign ministry and culture ministry, and also included other foreign diplomats and some members of the local Indian community. However, North Korean diplomats reportedly picked the film, which is interesting since, as mentioned, just a few months ago South Korea named Shah Rukh Khan as goodwill ambassador.

“The film [Taare Zameen Par] captures a positive, sensitive theme and unlike some other Bollywood films, neither has objectionable content nor has been made by people closer to our rival nation [South Korea],” an unnamed North Korean diplomat said. “We deeply value our relations with India and the film we choose for such an important occasion has to be just right in all aspects.” The Telegraph suggested that the North Korea diplomat was clearly taking a shot at Shah Rukh Khan, who has linked himself with South Korea.

(Bilatreal trade between India and North Korea totals about $1 billion.)

At any rate, the newspaper commented that it is unclear why Bollywood films have climbed in popularity in North Korea over the past decade, except to note that when Pyongyang diplomats and military figures visit India, they regularly ask about their favorite Indian actors and actresses and request more films for their collections.

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