You cannot police imagination: Fatima Bhutto
Growing up in the ancient city of Damascus, Syria, a young Fatima Bhutto would often be called by her father to accompany him to watch a Bollywood film. After patiently waiting for the videocassette to arrive, it would give her father a much needed escape, for he was living in exile — away from his home Pakistan, which was then under the torturous regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. “My father liked watching Bollywood films. Friends and family would send him videocassettes and it was very nostalgic for him. In Karachi, my grandmother, Nusrat, would watch a film at night in her room, it was her way to relax at the end of a long day,” she says.
“My brother watched them when he was a teenager and wanted to share his favourite films with me, so we watched them together. It has always been the background to my childhood,” says Fatima, who still keeps a track of Bollywood and doesn’t fail to mention that she was really impressed by Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019). “I loved it. I thought it was the best film I’ve seen from Bollywood in a long time. It was gutsy and brilliant,” she says.
A South Asian family living in the Middle East was not enticed by American films but by Indian ones. Fatima, then, would never have realised that in a span of 30 years, she’d go on to pen a book on how there was a cultural movement rising from the East that would counter the fast declining influence of the Western world. Her latest work, New Kings of the World: The Rise And Rise Of Eastern Pop Culture, is her attempt to make sense of this growing shift of power.
Sojourns of new revelations
Fatima travelled extensively to understand the intricacies of what makes up the spine of her work. “The research was really immersive — besides the normal stuff that one does when writing, like reading widely and digging up information, I had to watch a lot of films and TV shows, and travel to many new places. I interviewed so many people, many of whom didn’t even make it into the book but were important in shaping my understanding of certain phenomena,” says the author, who made it to the Bailey’s long list for her novel, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon.
Fatima checked off a few things on her to do list in the process of researching for her book. “In Peru, I travelled to parts of the city I would have missed as an ordinary tourist like Campo de Marti, where every Sunday, young people gather to dance to Bollywood music and K-pop. It was a really fascinating experience,” she says.
All these experiences come together to form the core of her work, which paints an Asia of the new millennium. “My latest book is about Asia, its rising power, and the bonds that connect us as human beings, above and beyond the limiting confines of our national borders. You cannot police imagination, there are no checkpoints strong enough to hold back people from sharing their stories,” she says.
In an interview with HT in 2018, Fatima called for the need for literary connect between different nations, especially between India and Pakistan. And while touring around the world for her promotional sessions, her resolute for this to actually happen only strengthened. “At all the events I’ve been to, Indians and Pakistanis were sitting together, sharing memories, laughing at all the same points. Indians tell me how much they like to watch Pakistani dramas and what it meant for them at different points in their lives. Pakistanis shared how Bollywood was emotionally resonant beyond any other films,” she says, adding, “Art should only be used to connect people, never to inflame sentiments or aggravate tensions. If it is used as a bridge, then the sky is the limit. If it is used to divide, people will turn away and watch something else.”
Return to fiction
Her last release, The Runaways, saw her return to fiction after five long years. Her latest work is, however, a work of non-fiction. “It was the right topic at the right time,” she says, adding, “I began with non-fiction and always love reading it so it’s been a joy to write New Kings of The World.”
Soft power — The way forward for Asia?
After all that’s said and done, today, it is not only the military capabilities of a country that count. Cultural domination, in the modern world, turns more heads than ever. But Fatima says that soft power only works if the power behind it is credible. “A lot of the decline of American culture comes from the dip in its global credibility so let’s see what happens in South Asia,” Fatima concludes.