Once upon a time in Korea...

How Kross Komics is wooing Indians with gripping Korean stories narrated in the webtoon format—and filling a gap for content for young women

Published: Sep 3, 2021 01:00:33 PM IST
Updated: Sep 3, 2021 01:30:29 PM IST

Hyunwoo Thomas Kim, co-founder and president, Kross Komics

Shalini Mishra starts narrating her favourite story on a Zoom video call from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. A business proposal, a blind date and then… that’s how the Korean romantic comedy webtoon—A Business Proposal—starts, in an office setting. “Shin Ha Ri is neck-deep in debt,” says the 19-year-old, alluding to the protagonist. Reading the gripping story on the Kross Komics app installed on her smartphone, the young Hindi undergrad student reveals more about the plot. “Karz main hai, aur dil bhi toota hai bechari ka (To add to her woes, the young employee is heartbroken over her seven-year-long crush),” she adds.

Enters Kang Tae Mu, a third-generation business conglomerate, who is hell-bent on marrying the next girl he meets to keep his grandfather happy. Meanwhile, Ha Ri gets a business proposal: Go on a blind date, and get rejected to earn a few extra bucks. “Taiyaar ho gayi wo (She is game),” says Mishra, with a twinkle in her eye. Ha Ri wears a wig, puts on heavy makeup and portrays herself as a foul-mouthed diva. In a twist, the blind date—who happens to the company’s CEO—gets smitten by her.
 
Back in Delhi, Ritika Guha is ready to talk about a special story. She finds the name, and the plot, of the Korean digital comic quite fascinating: I Was tricked into this Fake Marriage. The fantasy plot, underlines the 15-year-old school student, begins in a royal court and revolves around Leyrin Efran, who becomes a countess overnight. But to secure her family's title and estate, she is left with only one option: To get married. “Efran decides to marry a mysterious and arrogant stranger,” stresses Guha like a professional storyteller. Everything was going according to the script, but then something happened…

In the financial capital of India, Rohit Gupta is in love with a web comic title—Do as you Like it. The Korean fantasy story revolves around Dian, who travels to Evenhart Castle in place of Lady Selene to help her avoid an unwanted marriage. The feisty maid makes a daring approach by taking refuge with Sir Evenhart claiming a false identity. “What happens next is…,” Gupta’s voice disappears as the internet goes for a toss. After a few minutes, he reconnects. “I suppose the internet is at its best only in a fictional world, and not in Mumbai,” he says with a smile.
 
Meanwhile in Seoul, South Korea, Hyunwoo Thomas Kim too is eagerly waiting to unravel a triangular love story: Korean fiction, Indian readers, and Kross Komics. “It’s a blockbuster,” he says smiling. Thomas—as the entrepreneur prefers to be addressed—starts with the numbers. Kross Komics has 45,000 daily active users in India. “We have had over 4.3 million app downloads in such a short span of time,” says the co-founder and president of Kross Komics, the Korean webtoon company which started operations in India in December 2019.
 
Kross Komics caters to young readers—15 to 25; makes available Korean stories in English, Hindi and Telugu; and works on a freemium model. Readers can access the first five episodes of the digital comics for free, and then they have the option to ‘wait and pay’, which means they can either wait for a couple of days and choose to read the next episode when it’s available for free or make a payment and unlock the stuff immediately.
 
Thomas, for his part, has indeed managed to unlock the business potential which rides on the K-wave. “There is a strong overlap between the Indian and Korean cultures,” contends Thomas, underlining the reason behind the K-pop, K-drama, K-food, K-cosmetics and Kross Komics rage in the country. A Business Proposal, one of the best-selling webtoons from Kross Komics, is now being remade into a K-drama. The story, he explains, is a light, enjoyable romantic comedy that keeps readers hooked due to its intriguing twists. The characters are realistic, sweet, quirky, and are entangled in family expectations. “They are also extremely relatable to the GenZ and millennial,” he adds.
 
What, though, has made Korean web stories click massively in India is another sweet fact. A majority of the readers are women from tier I and II cities.
 
Marketing experts decode the magic sauce used in the saucy Korean stories of Kross Komics. Once upon a time, romance novels by Georgette Heyer and Mills and Boons were a staple for young women. “One had to hide their ‘shocking’ covers under text books,” says Jessie Paul, chief executive officer of Paul Writer, a B2B marketing agency. While vernacular magazines and their serialised stories were a staple for those who read in local languages, and made readers graduate from comics to books.

 As the trend now moves to shorter and more visual content, the need is met by graphic novels. “Surprisingly, this market need is satisfied by a Korean entrepreneur,” says Paul. Thomas, she lets on, has understood the genre that appeals best to the modern young woman. The long digital tail is finally delivering value to an often ignored audience: The young Indian woman. “Move over Chetan Bhagat. Hyunwoo Thomas Kim is here,” underlines the marketing expert.
 
What has also helped Kross Komics find wider acceptance is its smartness in sharply identifying its audience or readers. While most of the blockbuster Korean comic series rolled out by the company have women as the hero, the rest narrate the story from the lens or perspective of a woman.
 
Thomas, some reckon, has done an Ekta Kapoor.
 
Ashita Aggarwal explains. Two decades ago, the K-series—TV serials starting with the letter ‘K’—made Kapoor the undisputed soap opera queen. Though the magic looked simple, the producer was able to do what others couldn’t: Target homemakers in the age group of 25 to 50.
 
Before the K world, Indian television was mostly dominated by family shows with dominant male protagonists, and women were seen supporting the story in their traditional role. “K-series predominantly had women protagonists and, for a change, males supporting the story,” says the marketing professor at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai. The central characters not only resonated with the target audience, the series were a reflection of the positive and negative emotions experienced by women. 

Fast forward 20 years. The entertainment world seemed to have forgotten girls in the age group 15-20—who don’t identify with soap operas, find the idiot box a boring place and are hooked to OTT for binging salvation. This age group had also outgrown Tinkle and other comics. The Gen Z girl, Aggarwal points out, was seeking her individual identity. The imagery of traditional ‘women’ didn’t find favour and ‘glamour anchors’ were seen as repulsive. “The Korean webtoons were just what she was looking for,” she says.
 
The stories, characters and the fantasy world of Kross Komics resonated with young Indian women. The women are aspirational, career-oriented, seek more meaningful relationships and look at a life beyond marriage and in-laws. “Finally, women were not the supporting characters,” she adds. What also boosted the popularity of Kross Komics is the availability of content in Hindi and Telugu. 
 
Back in 2015, when Thomas came to India, he was already running Kross Pictures, a multinational film distribution and production company started in Seoul in 2004. His window to Indian cinema opened with 3 Idiots, which was released towards the end of 2009. “I was highly impressed with that movie,” he recalls. The Korean producer decided to set up shop in India, and in 2015 he started Indian operations for Kross Pictures.

 The reaction of his family and friends about the Indian move was along expected lines. “They branded me crazy,” he says smiling. Though Thomas had mapped two quintessential Indian things that Koreans loved—yoga and curry—what he also found intriguing was the fact that while many Koreans had visited India as tourists, there were only a few who were doing business by staying in India. But he was confident of finding opportunity in the land of chaos. “I somehow knew that India would work out well for me,” he recounts.
 
Mumbai—and Bollywood—became his first stop. The first movie to be produced by Kross Pictures was Teen (Te3n), a remake of South Korean film Montage. Though the mystery thriller assembled a big cast—Amitabh Bachchan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Vidya Balan—it didn’t do well at the box office. The lesson was learnt: A sharper script, and strong women characters.
 
Three years later, in 2019, Thomas backed a Telugu movie Oh! Baby. This time the storyline of the fantasy comedy, which was a remake of South Korean film Miss Granny, had a woman protagonist. A surly septuagenarian, Netflix points out in its movie description section, gets another chance at her 20s after having her photo snapped at a studio that magically takes 50 years off her life. The plot clicked, the movie worked, and Thomas unwittingly got his success formula for prospective webtoons.
 

Say Hello To Hallyu

Interestingly, by the time Thomas rolled out Kross Komics, Korean culture in the form of K-pop, K-drama, K-food and K-cosmetics had already made deep inroads in India, and across the world. K-dramas such as Love Alarm, True Beauty, Itaewon Class, My ID is Gangnam Beauty, and Extraordinary You were making waves globally.
 
Back in India, the ripple effect was strongly felt. In 2019, when KARD—one of the biggest names in the Korean pop (K-pop) industry—toured India for its maiden concert in Delhi and Guwahati, the response was overwhelming. “We didn’t know we had a huge fan following here,” BM, one of the band members, reportedly said.
 
While KARD was pleasantly surprised with India’s growing love for Korean culture, Seo Young Doo was quick to sense the trend. In December 2018, the Korean entrepreneur launched an online venture—Korikart—to etail Korean beauty, skincare, food, fashion, home and kitchen products. The company saw a huge uptick in sales not only from metro cities but also from regions like Punjab and North East. “We also see rising demand from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” the founder said in an interview to Forbes India last year.
 
Interestingly, around the same time, young Indian girls were falling in love with Korean cosmetics brands. About 39 percent of Indian women stated that their skincare routine consisted 25 percent of K-beauty products, according to a survey conducted by Rakuten Insight last year. About 3 percent of the surveyed women in India said that all their skincare products were from Korean brands.

 The trend has only gathered pace. As part of a global collaboration with South Korean boy band BTS, which has got a massive following across the world, American burger brand McDonald’s rolled out a BTS meal in India in June this year.
 
Back in 2019, Thomas found the market ripe for another offering from Korea: Digital comic stories. The opportunity, though, came with its own set of unique challenges. For an outsider, the diversity of culture and language in India is extremely fascinating. But for the investment banker-turned producer, India was an overwhelming experience. In the beginning, he too fell for the widely-held perception among foreigners that vernacular languages in the country are quite similar. “The biggest challenge was to strike a balance between similarities and differences,” he says smiling.
 
Another tough task was learning Hindi. “I have only learnt one word: Namaste,” he says with a laugh, adding that he did take some lessons in Hindi but gave up quickly. “It’s difficult to pronounce,” he says.
 
In spite of the challenges, Thomas persisted with his India journey. A big credit goes to food. One of his Indian friends in Seoul started a restaurant serving authentic Indian curries. “I love tandoori chicken,” he says laughing.
 
For the Korean entrepreneur in India, the next big challenge and opportunity would be to take his stories from K to K—Kashmir to Kanyakumari—in multiple regional languages. Is he game? “Absolutely,” he says. And if he does manage to expand his kingdom of stories in India, one might get to read a success story that goes, “Once upon a time in India, a Korean…”

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