As India was engulfed in Aryan Khan’s arrest and bail in the drugs controversy, in another part of the world, in the Korean entertainment industry, Kim Seon-ho, the Home Town Cha Cha Cha actor who was basking in newfound stardom, was brought to the brink of ruin. He had allegedly manipulated his ex-girlfriend into carrying out a forced abortion. Immediately, the 35-year-old actor was dropped from Domino’s Pizza and Canon ads and acting projects. Thankfully, the controversy died down after the actor issued an apology to his ex and fans of him and claims of the woman were unfounded.
This was one of the low-intensity scandals in a country otherwise infamous for being unforgiving of its public figures. The bar for public conduct is set so extremely high in South Korea, with moral responsibility tightly intertwined with shame, it hardly leaves any room for error.
Ilhoon, a former member of K-pop band BTOB, was dropped from the group and was sent to two years in prison in June after being convicted of marijuana use. One of K-pop’s biggest names, Bigbang’s TOP, was given a 10-month jail sentence for smoking pot. IKon’s rapper BI was dropped from the group over allegations surrounding drug consumption. In September, he was given a three-year suspended prison sentence and four years of probation for illegal drug use. The picture isn’t a pretty one and the list goes long.
Korean stars and their conduct are taken seriously, unlike in Bollywood where voyeurism into stars’ lives is the mainstay after any scandal.
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A tale of apologies & retirements
Last year in April, when four famous K-pop idols — NCT’s Jaehyun, BTS’s Jungkook, SEVENTEEN’s Mingyu, and ASTRO’s Cha Eun Woo — were caught visiting clubs one night when social distancing rules were in place, each of them issued personal apologies for their ‘poor decisions’ and ‘carelessness’, and took Covid tests. Last year in October, K-pop girl band Red Velvet’s Irene had to issue a public apology through Instagram for hurting her stylist with her ‘foolish attitude and careless words and action’.
If the magnitude of the scandal grows too big, the celebrity announces retirement (some in their early 30s) from the industry.
And while Sushant Singh Rajput’s partners and love-life were mercilessly analyzed and gossiped about here in India after the actor’s death, the same doesn’t happen in case of Korean celebrities. When K-pop stars Sulli and Goo Hara Nor took their own lives, the discussion revolved around toxic fan culture and pressures of stardom. Their personal lives were not dismembered in public. Nor did celebrity scandal become primetime news fodder.
Even when it comes to dating news, especially of K-pop stars, they are, more often than not, accompanied by apologies by the star to appease their fans. The buck doesn’t stop at extending an apology, fingers are raised if the gesture by the celebrity isn’t sincere or doesn’t sound genuine.
Even after going public, instances of celebrity couples flaunting their relationship are few and far between. While the mechanics of K-pop culture — which markets itself on the concept of desirability — hits a roadblock if their favorite star starts dating, an argument put forth by Koreans fans is that celebrities need to be accessed by the work they put out and not by who they are dating.
Morality above all
Korean society, still influenced by Confucian traditions, puts a taxing demand on correct manners, etiquettes and moral responsibility. A Business Insider report helps understand the link between morality and celebrities in South Korea. “Confucius culture was a dominant ideology in Korea and is still a prevalent and core belief in Korean society. In this culture, the ruling class (seniors, elites, and leaders) are required to have a strong morality to exercise their power,” Seung-Ho Kwon, director of the Korea Research Institute at the University of New South Wales, was quoted as saying.
Conducting well in public is part of a Korean celebrity’s image and a cardinal social requirement for being a public figure. The fallout of this rigorous demand, coupled with the piercing comments on Korean netizens, can be a discussion for another day.
Drug laws in Korea are stringent. In fact, for a South Korean, smoking marijuana anywhere in the world is illegal. However, medical marijuana was legalized in the country in 2018. Korean celebrities, especially rappers, have frequently found themselves at the wrong end of the law. And public outrage over any public figure’s linkage to drugs is enough to affect their careers.
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Cancel culture in India
In comparison to its Korean counterpart, Indian society doesn’t really ‘cancel’ its public figures, especially its entertainers for any wrongdoings or deviations. It just enjoys the voyeurism offered by entertainment – footage of star cars being chased, leaked WhatsApp chats and gossip. They remain passive consumers, both of entertainment as well as public conduct of celebrities. Indian celebrities, whether from Bollywood or TV world, and their unabashed display of wealth have made them so far removed from the common person, they are nothing more than a form of escape for most Indians. There is hardly any unbiased, civil debate when it comes to celebrity issues and their social responsibilities.
The noise and clamor around a celebrity scandal in India rarely touches the moral or ethical realm. In most cases, the argument doesn’t even center around the actual issue and gets subsumed by overarching subplots. Messy trolling, often misdirected, is a common feature in all. And the bigger the star, the worse the audience’s reaction. The unfortunate star becomes the punching bag for TV debates for a few days until another name replaces them and the cycle repeats all over again. For the Indian audience, whether they are watching Bigg Boss Season 15 or the Aryan Khan saga, the only difference lies in changing the channel.
Even the heart-breaking and shocking suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, initially focused on nepotism in Bollywood, was eventually reduced to a case of drug use in Bollywood and witchhunt. Mental health long forgotten. What could have been a moment to hold Bollywood accountable for practicing nepotism was wasted by focusing on Rhea Chakraborty.
The author tweets @monamigogoi. Views are personal.