Interview: Fatima Bhutto on her new book, New Kings of the World
Fatima Bhutto’s new book looks at the global appeal of eastern pop culture. In an email interview she talks about why everyone, from the Germans to the Peruvians, is enamoured by Bollywood, K-pop and Turkish DiziUpdated: Oct 04, 2019 18:54 IST
What was the genesis of the idea of this book?
If you live in the Global South, as inundated as we are with Western culture and as much as we enjoy it, you also know that the West is not the centre of the world. We live in a multi-polar world -- there are exciting cultural products coming out of India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Egypt, Turkey and there always have been. I’m tired of this idea that the rest of the world doesn’t exist and I wanted to investigate the frontiers that Asian powers are breaking through. I’m a great believer in the future of our continent and I wanted to investigate not just the fascinating possibilities of our cultural power but also the histories and politics of our products so far.
In New Kings of the World, you write, “This is a book about these new arbiters of mass culture arising from the East. Carefully packaging not-always-secular modernity with traditional values in urbanized settings, they have created a new global pop culture that can be easily consumed, especially by the many millions coming late to the modern world and still negotiating its overwhelming challenges...” While this is largely true, how does it explain the great popularity of SRK in places like Germany, where he is a huge star? (You allude to it too by mentioning those 10 German ladies, who follow SRK around.)
Our culture, whether that is Pakistan or India, are cultures of community, of intense expressions of joy and sorrow. We are, as a people, closely bound and I think that’s what these countries -- which consider themselves tightly wound and buttoned up emotionally -- really respond to in Bollywood or Turkish Dizi. It gives them a space as well as the permission to express themselves emotionally. People told me repeatedly that they felt able to cry, to express pain, to have an outlet for their feelings only through exposure to Bollywood and Dizi.
How did you get access to Shah Rukh Khan?
I wrote to Red Chilies Entertainment and received a response from his team.
I’m surprised that you left out Japan. Especially for GenZ -- very young people in their teens and early 20s -- Japan is THE Mecca and anime and Manga reign supreme. Was this a conscious decision? Why did you narrow the book down to the Indians, Turks and South Koreans?
The book had to be kept to a word limit. The remit was not to write a full exploration of global culture but to focus on the most updated iterations of those powers presenting themselves as New Kings. I would have loved to write about Japan and am an admirer of Japanese culture, old and new, but chose to focus on Korea because Kpop truly is a transnational phenomenon but also because it shares similarities with India and Turkey as they all liberalise their economies at the same time and strive to connect notions of modernity and tradition in expansive ways. Plus, the story of Kpop’s origins are not as well known and are particularly strange and fascinating.
You write, “Bollywood’s flair, fantasy, and spectacle have always been situated within the boundaries of conservative, traditional values and as such have long reached global audiences...” What is different about Bollywood’s reach today? South American interest is new but the countries of the former USSR, Africa and the Middle East were always interested in Hindi films.
Yes you’re right; Bollywood has always made inroads to Africa and the Middle East. I chose Peru because it doesn’t share anything that connects the other parts of the world to India. For example, India and Egypt have great connections through leaders like Gamal Abdul Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement. Their cinema industries produce films that are similar in terms of the high drama they contain. With African countries like Uganda or Nigeria, you have a lot of Indian trade and migration; many families settled there for decades. But Peru has no bilateral history with India, trade ventures are fairly new and the number of Indians settled there is tiny. I was looking particularly at how globalisation and the betrayal of globalisation -- namely that everyone would be lifted on the rising tide of opportunity and access -- is creating a new audience for Bollywood in the Global South.
The Peruvian section is absolutely fascinating with excellent insights on how indigenous people love SRK because they think he looks like them, and how they feel empowered just by the sight of brown people leading affluent lives in Hindi films... Why did you chose Peru instead of the other South American countries where Bollywood is popular.
Thank you! I chose it because I was curious about what it was that would draw this country with almost no ties to India towards its films. I think the issues of race and class and neoliberalism also came together in a perfect storm in Peru, which is what made it so fascinating to me. It’s a beautiful country and I was so touched by all the people I met there, how their aspirations and dreams and struggles connected them to a far away people across oceans and borders. This book was a great reminder to me how open we are to other cultures, to other people, how we have always been willing and enthusiastic about stretching across our own imaginations to hear about strangers and learn new stories. Try as forces might to contain us within our national borders and restrict our imaginations to our immediate confines, they fail. People want to be a part of the world. We are drawn instinctively to the idea that we are all connected, no matter nationality, creed or ethnicity.
While Bollywood is familiar territory, and Turkey isn’t culturally THAT alien, South Korea really is different. You’ve done a lot of reportage and the reader begins to understand how South Korea and especially K-pop works. How difficult was it to immerse yourself in the culture and to understand the South Korean context?
Korea was the country I had the least familiarity with and it required a lot of research and time but part of what was enjoyable about writing New Kings was how much I learned. I began my career as a non-fiction writer and as someone interested in people, I was eager to immerse myself. I read widely, I went to Korea and talked to everyone -- economists, writers, music executives, song writers, professors, singers, fans and more. It was difficult but fascinating.
Towards the end of the South Korean section you mention Chinese global cultural aspirations. “By 2017, Warner Music’s Chief Executive for International and Global Services had predicted that artists will want to break into China the way that they once sought to conquer America.” Reports suggest that Aamir Khan is the biggest international super star there and China already seems like Bollywood’s huge new territory. What, in your view, would be the challenges that China could present for Hindi films?
I think the greatest question is whether Indian films will continue to test barriers with works like Gully Boy which are experimental, original and watchable by the world or whether they will look inward to the point when their films are only palatable to a local audience. If they do the latter, then China will pose a real creative challenge. If they do the former then it will be exciting to see how the region, whether China or otherwise, works to keep pace.