Mizoram giving its own twist to the K-pop culture — An all-girls group is born

Mizoram giving its own twist to the K-pop culture — An all-girls group is born

For a month between mid-April and mid-May in 2022, 50 applications poured in from all over Mizoram and even from neighbouring Tahan district in Myanmar to a call by the state’s cable TV network Zonet. At stake was a chance to create history by being part of the first Mizo girl group to be carved out of a reality show.

Two months later, four girls were shortlisted versatile live performers with a firm grip on singing while also delivering immaculate dance moves. They went on to form the group IVY’Z and in the process, crystalised an evolution that has been silently taking place in the state for over two decades.

The 1st Mizo Girl Group Survival Show held last year was the brainchild of Jacinta Lalawmpuii, a runner-up of the K-pop India Contest – the biggest competition of its kind in the country started by the Korean Cultural Centre India (KCCI) in 2012. The halo of K-pop isn’t limited to the formation of an all-girls group. At least three of the four IVY’Z members and their mentors (in the show) have been touched by the pop culture of South Korea at some point in their lives.

To find such a common thread isn’t a rarity in the northeastern state. Since the early 2000s, eons before the advent of OTT platforms, the state had been exposed to Korean cultural content. Today, almost every millennial in Aizawl recalls how the town was bewitched by the Korean drama Full House (2004) – one of the epochal shows that propelled the Korean wave also called Hallyu wave across Asia.

Mizoram’s affinity to Myanmar (with which it shares a 510-km border) allowed easy access to Asian entertainment. Stacks of pirated CDs and DVDs of the K-dramas would be sold on the roadside. There was also the Korean channel Arirang, which aired content with English subtitles broadcast on Mizo television. These K-dramas were also dubbed into the Mizo language and shown on local cable TV by channels such as Zonet and LPS as early as 2004. That continues even to this day.

Soon after Korean dramas caught the imagination of the state’s people, Korean popular music or K-pop caught up with the youth. While most of India warmed up to the Korean wave around the late 2010s, Mizoram was already churning out winners at the K-Pop India Contest.

The onscreen romance of Song Hye-Kyo and Rain in Full House, which had swept Mizoram nearly two decades ago, has now come full circle and the impact of the Korean wave is now visible in the Mizo entertainment industry. Today, the state’s real-life romance with Korean pop culture is bursting at the seams, with past winners of the K-Pop India Contest actively involved in Mizoram’s cultural content. The soft power of K-pop has metamorphosed into glocalisation as Mizoram customises the global cultural juggernaut to suit its requirements.

A pop-up store selling magazines and merchandise of K-pop idols set up inside the Millennium Centre in Aizawl | Photo: Disha Verma | ThePrint

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Mizoram’s 1st girl group survival show

Last year, the idea to organise a survival show came to Lalawmpuii, seeing the success Mizo singers have been able to achieve in the state. Today, she manages the four-member group and has also led a dance group 5feet, which made its mark at the K-pop contest in 2015.

“Our renowned singers are doing quite well, even in a small state like ours. So, my dream was, we never had a girl group in so long, so why not do a survival show? We worked with Zonet,” says the 29-year-old, who has been a fan of K-pop since her 3rd grade. In the early 2000s, “there was no word like K-pop, only Korean music artists”.

“I have always followed the Korean entertainment scene as a whole. I’ve always been inspired by how these agencies are formed, their training system, how a teenager can dream of becoming a big star and how they go into training with all the discipline and hard work. The whole idea was so appealing because you don’t hear it in Western culture, in Hollywood or even Bollywood. There you either make it or you don’t,” says Lalawmpuii.

“The Korean thing was so systematic, from albums to merchandise. I found they were very advanced. You’d think they would stop somewhere but they became even more innovative as time passed. They started having these reality survival shows, like Produce 101Idol School and Girls Planet. The whole concept (of our show) definitely came from there, it was an inspiration,” says Lalawmpuii.

Elements from Korean music survival shows such as the process of elimination by audience vote and trying out different combinations of the contestants to form a group were included while putting together IVY’Z.

“I think (we included) the elimination parts… how a group of girls comes together, they practice together and try out being in different teams. If you are with the same group, the chemistry could be very good or very bad… I think for any successful girl group, you need to be able to work together,” says Lalawmpuii, who was also one of the judges on the show.

Shot in a day’s time, IVY’Z first music video (MV) came out in December 2022. It may not have the high-budget aesthetics of a typical Korean music video but carries traces of K-pop impact sprinkled all over. The song is shot in a dreamy pastel frame, has English lines fused into Mizo lyrics, a rap segment alongside vocals and comes with subtitles, a quintessential component of any K-pop MV.

Mizo girl group IVY’Z during a performance in Aizawl | Photo: Instagram/@ivyz__fameentertainment

K-pop has heavily inspired IVY’Z members. Sailiantluangi Sailo, 24, says that Lisa from the popular K-pop girl group Blackpink is her role model. “She is from Thailand and yet she could debut in a big company like YG, and that inspired me personally even though there are other good dancers,” she says, underlining how the influence of K-pop isn’t limited to dancing and singing but also touches fashion in the state.

“The Korean wave has a big influence on Mizoram, especially in Aizawl. Even the fashion trend. We cannot say it’s 100 per cent but we really do get inspired from K-pop and K-dramas,” says Sailo, who works as a dance instructor with a K-pop dance cover crew, Born Unique.

Another IVY’Z member, whose stage name is Juchy, was a runner-up at the K-pop India Contest in 2017. The free trip to Korea she earned as a prize allowed her to experience the audition process in the country that birthed the global cultural phenomenon.

“It’s really nothing to brag about because it was just a normal audition, like the weekly and monthly auditions which you just walk in. I auditioned for JYP, SM, YG, Polaris and Banana Culture (Korean entertainment companies that produce K-pop groups),” she says.

Meanwhile, manager Lalawmpuii is dreaming big.

As a K-pop fan, whose favourite artists in her early years were first-generation idols like Lee Hyori, BoA, Rain and groups like Fin.K.L and S.E.S, she knows language isn’t a barrier and social media can be instrumental in unlocking fame and success.

“The market here is pretty small. So, we are looking to do something and expand. We are not just confined to Mizoram. We are planning to have songs in English. I am on the lookout for a really good producer,” says Lalawmpuii.

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K-pop albums and merchandise

With Mizoram embracing K-pop and reproducing it on its own terms, it’s no surprise that the availability of K-pop albums and merchandise is also relatively easier here than for an average K-pop fan in the rest of the country. There are at least two shops in Aizawl where one can go and buy albums and items linked to the K-pop industry directly from the shelves.

Last year in February, a physical store selling K-pop albums popped up at Aizwal’s Kelvi Market. The owner, 26-year-old Annie Vl Hriati, says she decided to set up the Cookie KShop, a first of its kind in the entire country, after the success of her online Instagram store.

As a young couple walks into her store in the evening, Hriati recalls how the state’s tryst with the Hallyu began with Full House and has evolved over time. She feels the influence of K-beauty has percolated down to Mizo society and reflects in people’s fashion choices and even hairstyles.

There are also random pop-up stalls inside malls and market centres in the capital where K-pop goods are ubiquitously present. Most of these stalls sell Chinese versions of K-pop albums, photocards and other assorted items, thanks to the state’s porous border with Myanmar.

An offline store, Cookie KShop, sells K-pop albums, magazines, photo cards and other K-pop merchandise inside a market complex in Aizawl | Photo: Disha Verma | ThePrint

“Even though I’m not so much into Korean culture, I’ve been a longtime observer of the changes. Initially, Chinese and Japanese culture was quite popular because there is a lot of influence of Western and Oriental culture in this part of India. You can tell from the fashion and the food, general TV and internet content,” says Elizabeth, a research scholar at Mizoram University.

“The Korean culture has been here for 20 years and has been going really strong. Firstly, it’s the facial resemblance because, in mainstream Indian media, we don’t have a representation. You look for people you relate to. The attraction and the craze started with the sense of representation that they had. Then the state is also very isolated, that’s been another thing adding to it,” she adds.

However, Mizoram isn’t confined to accepting only Korean content. The state is receptive to Hindi serials as well as Turkish dramas. In fact, when Full House was gripping the state, a Hindi serial was also making waves.

“I think, at that time, Hindi serial Kasauti Zindagi Kay was also very popular. Around the same time, the Korean serial Full House had come out. So, it was like the whole of Mizoram was divided into two. I think we felt a bit more of a connection with Full House because it was a very fresh concept, the physical appearances were a bit more similar. A little later, it was dubbed into Mizo,” recalls Lalawmpuii.

“A lot of my aunties and uncles would watch K-dramas. We find it on our local channels. I think it’s just considered like any other French movie or Spanish movie, nothing different. It just turns out that the K-dramas are very good,” she says.

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The ‘grand, old’ Mizoram K-pop Fan Club

The twenty-year-long bond between Mizoram and the Hallyu has led to the creation of an organised fan culture in the state. Under the aegis of the Mizoram K-pop Fan Club (MKFC), which was founded in 2016, fan clubs of different K-pop bands have come together to share their common interests during various K-pop-related functions. They were also instrumental in starting the Aizawl leg of the K-pop India Contest, which previously was being held as a single northeast region. Today, Mizoram boasted of producing four national winners and countless runner-ups in the competition.

Mary Khawlhring, who is one of the four heads of MKFC, started her Korean wave journey in 2002 and currently works as an ESL teacher in Noida. She believes the K-wave has helped shape the careers of people in the state.

“Now, when my students (most of whom are Korean) speak and talk, I literally understand what they are saying. So, I think this wave has really helped people like us learn the language and it gives us this opportunity to build a career in speaking or even with company work. I also have friends who are working in Korean restaurants here. I also have friends who work in Korea because of this Hallyu wave,” she says.

Another MKFC leader Emree Pachuau emphasizes on the business opportunities the K-pop trend has created.

“Moreover, society-wise, this Hallyu has also brought a fire. I’d say that it has inspired to spring up many Korea-centric businesses, such as small-individual businesses where they sell K-pop merchandise,” says Pachuau.

It has also given rise to a dance culture in the state.

“Before, dance wasn’t a very huge thing in Mizoram. Now, most teens and young adults are starting to take up dancing and we can see them in Mizo music videos. Most of the performers in them are all from K-pop backgrounds,” says Khawlhring.

Pachuau underlines that a lot of Mizo entertainers started out from the regional round of the annual K-pop contest that’s organised by them in association with Korean Cultural Centre India. He recalls a long list of names whose roots lie in K-pop.

Pachuau recounts that a new solo artist Asangi had been a contestant in the K-pop contest last year. The group Frozen Crew, which won the contest in 2015, is “still leading the dance culture in Mizoram”. One of the members, Jonathan, was the mentor at last year’s survival show. Xoe Pachuau, the 2020 winner was the choreographer.

The state is riding on the crest of the Korean wave, with signs that it’s only likely to grow further. Korean businesses have reached the state with cafes like Dongne The Town and Kori’s in Aizawl, opening their outlets less than 1 km apart.

At another coffee shop, a high school couple quietly sneaks aside from their group of friends. They click mirror selfies while holding classic romantic K-drama poses—making hearts with their hands. An apt portrayal of how deep the romance between Mizoram and the Korean wave has become.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)