Romance, chemistry, steamy scenes and attractive protagonists – Asian ‘boys’ love’ (BL) dramas have just the right mix of it all to make them addictive to audiences around the world.
While BL dramas started sweeping over several Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia from 2017 onwards, fandom in India has been blowing up since 2020 owing to the popularity of Thai romantic drama 2gether: The Series. The story follows two college boys who pretend to be in a relationship only for it to develop into a real one. Produced by Thai channel GMMTV, one of the episodes has garnered a whopping 21.7 million views on YouTube. The two season series is also available on Netflix.
For the uninitiated, BL dramas, as the name suggests, centre around gay love stories. The genre, which has become a cultural phenomenon, has its roots in 1970s Japanese Yaoi manga that features homoerotic stories. Yaoi literally translates to “yama nashi ochi nashi imi nashi,” which means “no climax, no ending, no meaning”. These were exclusively written by women for women and focused more on sexually pairing male characters with very little attention paid to the plot.
As the genre gained popularity over the years, it evolved into BL novels, several of which have been adapted for the screen with Thailand, Taiwan and Japan being the leading producers.
In 2016, Taiwan launched GagaOOLala – Asia’s first LGBTQ OTT platform – which expanded to India and the rest of South Asia only in June 2019. GagaOOLala has over 20,000 subscribers from India, which includes both paying and free members.
“Globally, gay content is popular. But in some countries, like India, BL is as popular or has even surpassed the views for gay content. Our most watched BL series in India has been our recent Taiwanese family-oriented original Papa & Daddy, followed by the Chinese BL Capture Lover, and another of our originals Call It What You Want, which is the first BL series with a mix of Thai and Taiwanese cast,” says Jaime Costas Nicolás, a representative of GagaOOLala.
GagaOOLala attributes the substantial increase in subscribers from India to two reasons. For one, with everyone home because of the pandemic, OTT and streaming platforms have gotten more popular. The platform also launched a large number of original titles, which has helped drive up the traffic.
Netflix also has a line-up of hit BL dramas like Sotus: The Series, Love Sick and Hormones with a common description for all of them – “swoonworthy”.
“BL stories are simply classic teenage romance stories that have traditionally targeted young adult women, but with two lead men. If you add to this the recent wave of ‘idol culture’ of K-pop in Asia, you have the perfect recipe for BL to explode. That’s why most BL series don’t really care that much about the story but about the looks and chemistry between the main characters. The popularity of K-dramas has also opened the doors for more Asian-made content to be showcased globally,” explains Nicolás.
Indeed, K-pop and K-dramas paved the way for the popularity of BL dramas in India. Rajvi Jhala, the admin of @bl_imagines, an Indian fan account on Instagram with 33.4k followers, was into Korean dramas for several years when a YouTube recommendation led her to her fist BL drama, Love by Chance.
The 23-year-old admits feeling ‘cringe’ the first time around as she had never seen or talked about the LGBTQIA+ community before. Following this Rajvi posted about the drama on her K-pop fan account, where other fans reached out and recommended other BL dramas to watch and discussed the plots. She started the BL fandom account on January 19, 2020.
With the release of 2gether: The Series, Indian fans started to buy official merchandise. Rajvi, along with her co-admin, became the Indian representative of BrightWin (the official fandom name of the drama). They conducted projects that are planned by the Official BrightWin Fanclub from India and made donations during the Philippines floods and also to the Humsafar Trust, an NGO promoting LGBTQIA+ rights.
Sneha Sundar, another admin of a popular fan account @anotherblstan, now has 40k followers on Instagram and watches BL dramas more than any other types of series. “Honestly, I was just bored watching all the mainstream hetero series/movies,” Sundar says.
Sneha was also an ardent fan of Japanese and Korean dramas, which led her to her first Taiwanese BL series. While her fan account was initially an “Asian drama recommendation” account she changed it into a BL fan page and her followers kept increasing. “In 2021 so far, I personally loved I Told Sunset About You, Manner of Death, Lovely Writer and We Best Love,” Sundar recommends.
While India has decriminalised homosexuality, it still has a long way to go in terms of rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. So why is BL content resonating so much with Indians? Some of the reasons are simple – it’s a new phenomenon, it’s steamy and the actors are cute and handsome. A few series go deeper and reflect upon society and its understanding of the LGBTQIA+ community. Most importantly, Sundar says, it is because Yaoi and BL content is mostly created to cater to the female audience.
“Women are not the centre of attraction. In BL dramas, women are not objectified or sexualised. It’s like we can escape reality for a while. As most BLs and Yaoi manga are written by women, they portray a man in a way a woman wants to see them. Vulnerable, soft, submissive, passive, extremely romantic and doing things they usually won’t do as a ‘man’ in real life. Indian woman are so used to seeing men being portrayed as aggressive, strong , emotionless, so when we see men acting totally opposite, it is refreshing,” she adds.
According to Rajvi, it’s because of a feeling of “liberation”. “The idea behind Indians watching more BL series is not merely following the trend but to promote equality and freedom to love. The fan account is a medium to make Indians more aware about the community, promote gay rights and to support the people who are still in the closet. I’ve interacted with a lot of Indians who watch BL series and admit that they have a ‘secret’,” says Rajvi.
However, there have been concerns that the LGBTQIA+ community in BL dramas is not always correctly represented, says 20-year-old Parth, who identifies as gay. Parth, who is also a fan of BL dramas, watches them for sheer entertainment and feels that they fail to show the real struggle that people from the community go through.
“They should start representing diverse gay characters, like feminine boys. It kind of disturbs me how they show it. Because in real life, gay men are not always neutral or masculine… there are also feminine gay men and boys,” he adds.
While everyone has their own reasons to started watching these series, BL dramas have definitely taken Indians by storm and the popularity of the genre keeps growing day by day. “With the explosion of the genre, we have seen a huge number of new BLs, but it feels like there’s quantity over quality. Moving forward, with the maturing of the BL market, I hope we can see more original stories being told outside of the BL cliches of engineer/medical students, and, in general, more focus on the storytelling than relying on the popularity of the cast,” says Nicolás.