When author Fatima Bhutto visited Washington DC’s popular Politics and Prose bookstore last month, the South Asian visitors there could not stop talking about how good it feels to see someone from their land in the city. Some spoke about her Afghan lineage, while others shared memories of her grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Pakistan prime minister; they even enquired if she would join politics.
As the chatter subsided, she took the podium to talk about her latest book, New Kings of the World, published by Columbia Global Reports in the US and Aleph Book Company in India. “Essentially, the last century has been a very uniquely American century when it comes to pop culture. Barring a few blips such as The Beatles and French films, we’ve been inundated with American films, TV and music, and that continues, but what is changing in the world today is that there is movement rising out of Asia,” says Bhutto.
She primarily charts the journey of Bollywood in the book, and goes to Peru to understand what makes Indian films so popular in the country. She travels to and explores the cultural industries of two other countries too: Turkey and South Korea. Bhutto gives us a behind-the-scenes account of Magnificent Century, Turkey’s biggest TV show, watched by over 200 million across 43 countries, and understands how K-Pop has transformed the world of popular music through a trip to Seoul.
In a detailed email interview from the US, she talks more about the premise of the book. “We have long lived in a multi-polar world when it comes to culture. Even when I was growing up in Syria in the 1980s at an ostensibly closed time, we were able to listen to Motown music, watch Bollywood films, and get Russian cartoons on television. I started this book because I wanted to look at the rise of Asia,” says Bhutto, who has previously written The Runaways, Songs of Blood and Sword and The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.
American pop culture is losing its relevance because of the betrayal of globalisation, says Bhutto. “The world was not lifted on a wave of opportunity, wealth and access as promised. That has alienated millions struggling to survive the modern world, and has rendered American cultural products offensive if not tone-deaf to their struggles. It’s not to say it’s not popular still, but it’s facing serious competition,” she says.
Can it reinvent itself? “I’m afraid it’s a bit late for that,” says Bhutto, “It has come very late to the issue of diversity; it can’t even tell the story of an Ethiopian refugee drama without a White protagonist and it no longer speaks to the struggles of the majority of the world’s populations,” she says, referring to the Dakota Fanning-starrer Sweetness in the Belly.
She shares with us the video of a dance performance, which shows a Peruvian girl — wearing ghaghra-choli, bindi, mehendi, and jasmine
flowers — dancing to the iconic Madhuri Dixit song Maar dala at an Indian restaurant in Lima. “You name any Bollywood actor and there will be fan club dedicated to them in Peru,” says Bhutto. She writes about this love affair that started in the ’50s even when countries did not share any diplomatic relations. It is 2019 and the love has only grown. Bhutto writes about her experiences at various dance classes, fan club meetings, Facebook live sessions and film screenings through which people experience Bollywood now. It is not an interest of the elite, she points out, it belongs to the middle class who see their struggles reflected in the Indian cinema and find it fascinating to see a brown man making it big.
Shah Rukh Khan tops the charts here and young men with their dark brown skin, mestizo features and black hair cut in flat-brush style seem like they have modelled themselves on the actor. To understand his superstardom, Bhutto flew to Dubai to meet the actor in person and observe a day in his life, where he was shooting an episode for the Egyptian reality TV show Ramez Underground. To her, Khan spoke about his earlier films, “the goodness he brought to badness”, and why a group of German grannies follows him everywhere.
Bhutto began working on the book in 2016, “but if I was starting it today, I wouldn’t have included Bollywood”. She says, “With regards to the rest of the world, I am not sure it will survive its most recent incarnation as a cottage propaganda industry.”
The author also looks at the rise of Turkish TV shows or dizis that are sweeping through Middle East, Asia and Latin America. She travels to Istanbul to speak to the people behind popular shows such as Forbidden Love, What’s Fatmagul’s Fault, and Magnificent Century, and explains their global success. “They appeal to both modern and traditional sensibilities. The settings and production are modern, and yet the stories are based on traditional morality. The dramas are centred not around materialism or bloodlust but about the struggle of living honourable lives of dignity,” says Bhutto, who also travelled to refugee camps in Beirut to understand why people spend hours watching them.
In the book’s epilogue, she talks about the high-rises of Seoul to understand the working of Korean film industry, the making of K-Pop idols, and explains how K-culture is American culture repurposed. She speaks to K-pop trainees who tell her how contracts include seven to 10 cosmetic surgeries, and extremely hectic schedules. “Korea is facing competition from China. Already the head of Warner Music has said that artistes will want to break into China the way they once wanted to break into the US,” says Bhutto, warning us well in advance that further upending of status quo can be expected in the future.