Meet Lucky, Korea’s Most Famous Indian
Korean TV personality Abhishek Gupta aka Lucky on merging Indo-Korean cultures, racism, acceptance and industry changes
It’s 9.30 pm in Seoul, and the background is dotted with casual chatter and the occasional clink of a plate—Lucky is talking to me from the restaurant that has become his namesake, ‘Lucky India.’ He’s not just a restaurateur, though— as the introduction from an earlier interview with the wildly popular YouTube channel Asian Boss would have it—he’s also ‘the most famous Indian in Korea,’ with his name on the roster for various popular variety shows.
Abhishek Gupta, now known as Lucky, left for Korea to pursue a job at Hyundai in 1996 at the behest of his father. At the time, entertainment was not on the radar, only assimilation and the urge to get rid of homesickness: “I came in the analog time; now, it’s more digitized. So, when I first came, there was no access to the Internet, no handphones, or no Google where you could search for top ten favorite restaurants or things to do. Things were a little different, and difficult, obviously.”
The turnaround came purely by chance in 2000, sometime before South Korea took the global spotlight by hosting the 2002 FIFA World Cup. “When I was in university, they were looking for a foreigner who could speak Korean. They wanted a guy who could travel everywhere in Korea, eat the food, speak some Korean—they wanted to show the public how a foreigner feels in Korea,” he recalls his time on Good Morning World, the KBS show that became his first big break. Fast forward fifteen years later, and he became a member on the popular favorite Non-Summit, or Abnormal Summit, where he debated issues du jour with expats from different countries who’d made Korea their home.
In his year-long tenure on the show, Lucky and his fellow cast members presented a cohesive picture of the world’s inter-connectedness, garnering praise for their diverse choice of topics and opinions. Now, as India and Korea move toward a new era for partnerships, both economically and culturally, Rolling Stone India caught up with Lucky to talk about the convergence of the two cultures and industries, and what it has in store for the future.
You’ve been on Non-Summit and other Korean variety shows, plus you went to Korea in 1996 and have been living there for 20 years. How has the experience been?
Things were a little different, and difficult, obviously, but we have all developed in a good way. Anybody who can come to Korea now—before coming to Korea, they already have access to what Korea looks like, or what to do here. It might not be very valuable or precious for them, but because I learned the hard way, everything is very precious. It’s quite interesting, and I personally think Korea changed a lot after the 2002 FIFA World cup. They wanted to brand Korea for the global market; they wanted to show a very dynamic country. Yes, it’s one of these countries that changed so drastically in such a short amount of time. I think it’s the Korean DNA. Koreans don’t believe in the silver or the bronze medal. They don’t believe in number two or number three. They only believe in number one. They just want to be the best in everything. It’s amazing, [although] the side effects are that Korea is the most stressed country in the world.
When you were in this transitional period (of becoming an actor) was there any hesitation in you? Did you think about how you will be received by the audience?
I was the oldest member [on the cast]. I was older than all the MCs of the show. I thought everybody will be pulling my leg and the jokes will be on me, because Korea is very sensitive about age. I thought all the good-looking younger generation would be getting the spotlight. Maybe that’s what made my job easier. I was not trying to prove anything. I was just trying to speak my language and the knowledge I gained in the last two decades and to share. The way I always try to explain things is always [through] comparison between Indian and Korean cultures; that’s my way of living, so it makes people feel connected. I’m very thankful to the Korean audience; they’ve loved me, they gave me so much love and support, and whenever I meet them, they always tell me that [they] actually came to know about so many things and that, ‘We went to India, and now we feel that India is a much closer country to us because of you.’ These are conversations that make you believe in yourself and your thoughts.
“The way I always try to explain things is always [through] comparison between Indian and Korean cultures; that’s my way of living.”
Did it ever feel difficult keeping pace with being In Korea since it moved so fast, changed so drastically?
The best way to live in Korea is to be like the Koreans. If I try to live like an Indian, and if I try to show that I’m a very proud Indian, I can show a different me, but it should not distract the pace of Korean life. Koreans are, for example, very particular about timings. Their meeting times are very precise. If you’re meeting at 12, you’re supposed to get there five minutes early, whereas in India if you’re meeting somebody at 12, half an hour late is ‘chalta hai.’ I tell this to the Koreans when they go to India. I say, ‘If you ever go to India for a week, don’t try to live like a Korean in India. Try to live like an Indian for a week.’ Be late for an appointment. Don’t eat lunch at 11.30— eat lunch at 1.30. Because that’s the pace of life. Any country, try to live a local for that one week or however long you’re going.
You said before that you want to be a bridge between Indian and Korean cultures. How do you try to do that?
So, good news is that there is finally going to be a joint movie between India and Korea. You can officially check that on the news. Eros International, B&C Group, and a Korean media house called Say On Media, who have independent rights to produce a movie for the 2000 year-old love story between a Korean king and an Indian Princess. She was an Indian princess from Ayodhya, named Heo Hwang Ok, and still Koreans believe that all the Kims from the Gimhae city, they think their mother is India because their ancestors came from India. This will be a co-production: it will be produced as a web-series in Korea and as a movie in India. So that’s going to be very interesting, how the synergies of Bollywood and K-pop will all have little zigzag buzzes from here and there, but nothing in concrete has been done so far. Also, K-pop was such a huge thing in Japan, China and in other Southeast Asian countries, but not in India. But finally, BTS has nailed it. This will bring India and Korea closer. We need this kind of exchange because still, when we talk of India in South Korea, people still think about bathing in the Ganges, snake-charmers, which is of course a part of India, but maybe a few decades ago. They have to be updated. It’s the same with the knowledge of South Korea among Indians. Most Indians, when we talk about South Korea, they’re like, ‘Oh, you know North Korea? You know Kim Jong Un? Do you know the missiles?’
I was watching Welcome, First Time in Korea where you were visited by three of your friends. You said the same thing, ‘People think we are all doing yoga by the Ganges River but it’s not like that.’
My friend Bikram cancelled his flight 12 hours before the shoot. We shot this episode in October 2017, and if you go back in the timeline, there were some issues with North Korea. You know how the news is shown in India with the bold red banners. He said ‘Lucky, I cannot go. My mom, she’s worried.’ And I said, ‘Bikram, my TV career will be dead if you don’t show up, so please come.’ The moment they landed, they changed their perspective, the way they thought about Korea in one hour. They’re like, ‘This country is so beautiful, the roads are so nice; it’s so clean, people are following the rules.’ These are the things that no one’s going to show on television.
Welcome, First Time in Korea helped in changing the perception of a lot of Indians, especially where Korea is concerned. Has that happened the other way round? Have you had any Koreans reach out and tell you that you’ve changed their perception of India?
It’s a big honor. Last year, an ambassador staying at the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas actually called me up and said, ‘Lucky, I think you’re the real ambassador to Korea.’ Thanks to that show, a lot of people actually changed their perception of India. People say, ‘Oh, your friends are not coming again? They were so funny, they were so nice.’ It helped us to treat India in a different way. The impact was there, but there’s a lot of work that has to be done.
What kind of challenges do you think you’ll face from here on out?
Even though the movies are coming out, but there’s still a little bit of a cultural divide or even just bias. I think we all are ambassadors of our country living abroad. If someone says things to you which you don’t agree with, you don’t have to fight back. If the response is aggressive, like somebody says something like, ‘Oh, everybody in India eats food with their hands,’ you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, you don’t know, people are also having this and that.’ You cannot be a better person by reflecting your emotions in a harsh way. It’s how you project the image. We need a decent conversation in that respect.
About the bias that you were just talking about, I saw your video with Asian Boss where you described some personal experiences with racism.
There is nothing good or bad. How you’re going to fix it, how you’re going to say, ‘This is not right’ and what has to be done in proper ways is more important than showing your anger and temper. Like, ‘Oh, I’m a celebrity, you don’t let me go into your restaurant? Let me make a few phone calls.’ That’s a very small thinking—I could have done that, but it wouldn’t have fixed anything. You have to be very positive, you should do much better things in life and you should only try to be more successful, because success helps you fix everything. You’ve taken a bit of India to Korea.
Do you have any plans of bringing a bit of Korea back to India, like maybe expanding your restaurant?
Absolutely. Thanks for that. At the same time, Lucky Korea will be getting into cosmetics to be exported to India. I want to bring Korean beauty and food to India as well.