When Bhutto met Khan
Calling it the funnest book she's ever worked on, Fatima Bhutto's latest title is a compact and animated account of Eastern pop culture; an answer to America's dominance and decline
In the Damascus of the 1980s, Fatima Bhutto remembers living through a period where she couldn't find bananas as isolationist Syria didn't grow the fruit. At the same time, in Mezzeh, she got her hands on bootleg Madonna albums at a local video rental shop. The anecdote, detailed in her latest book New Kings of the World (Aleph Book Company), is also its foundation. It's not just a chronicling of the 'rise and rise of Eastern pop culture', as its sub-head suggests, but also a reflection on the identities nations like India, Turkey and South Korea build for themselves while carving a niche for soft power.
Here, Bhutto makes the reader very much a part of her research. In Dubai, she meets Shah Rukh Khan, 'dressed like Justin Bieber', at the Palazzo Versace. Analysing the characters he's played—from stalkers to softies—he tells her that he brings a certain kind of goodness to badness. And if you've wondered at what point Khan pondered being a star; it's the moment when Salman Khan's father told him that barbers at the salon asked clients if they wanted a Shah Rukh haircut. Bhutto proceeds to describe her encounters with a Bollywood dance troupe in Lima, Peru, and adventures in Istanbul, before unravelling K-Pop's stronghold. It's safe to say that after a couple of hours and an 140-odd pages, you leave with a pocket-sized account of pop culture, but one that makes sense of the world.
Excerpts from an interview:
At age 15, you published your first book, a collection of poems called Whispers of the Desert, in 1998. How has your understanding of pop culture and the way you articulate it changed since then?
Psy in Gangnam Style
I don't think entertainment is innocent. All entertainment, wherever it comes from, is coded with the politics and values of its makers. So I watch movies not just to be entertained but also to know what a feeling is in a place at a given time. Think about what Zero Dark Thirty said of America and the war on terror at the time it was released, what function Homeland served, why it was that Rambo ravages his way through Asia at the height of the Cold War? Soft power is a political tool. And it can be incredibly sophisticated or very blunt. I always understood entertainment wasn't innocent and have always been fascinated by how unquestioningly we can receive it. Walt Disney was an avid propagandist, for example, it doesn't make his animations less entertaining, not at all, but it certainly adds texture to what you're watching when you know that.
While reading New Kings of the World, it seems to me like you had a well-defined trajectory when you began writing...
I had one clear idea: that American pop culture was on the decline and the race to becoming global pop giants was happening from multiple directions. Why they were successful or who was leading the race was part of my research and travels but yes, I've always been drawn to pop culture and I'm fascinated by the times we live in and how countries are employing soft power to conquer hearts and minds. I started thinking about the book in 2016 and began research, travel and writing in 2017. It is the funnest book I've ever worked on, a total delight, but also very challenging as it required an enormous amount of research and interviews.
A still from Calikusu — the first Turkish dizi to leave the country, which Russia bought and retitled Lovebird. It was remade in 2013 and grained traction from Russian audiences. Pic courtesy /YouTube
When you touch upon Bollywood, Turkey's soap operas (dizi), or K-pop, what discoveries did you make along the way and did that also require a fair bit of unlearning of any preconceived notions?
I was fascinated by Turkish dizi; that was a real education for me. They are undoubtedly the most sophisticated of the three cultural products I wrote about. Very nuanced, very intelligently done and very entertaining. I like to hope that I don't have rigidly preconceived notions, I'm a learner and I enjoy the process of adding to what I know and being surprised by what I don't know. New Kings of the World was so fascinating in that regard, I learned so much about myself as a viewer, about places far away like Peru and South Korea it was an entire book of discoveries.
Did you have a target audience in mind?
I don't think of target audiences when I'm writing. I'm drawn to subjects that I want to read about and know about and explore. But I think New Kings is a blend of culture, politics, and the tensions of existing in the modern world so I hope people will enjoy it.
But what do you hope readers take away from the book?
That we live in a multi polar world—there is no center, there never was. The cultures that are exciting and dynamic today are coming from very close to home and they are stories of our lives, our struggles and our fears. We are not invisible, we are the story. I think it is profoundly inspiring to see how open we are to each other. As forces try to limit us within national borders and try to inflame nationalism, global culture is a sign that it doesn't take. We want to know more about each other, we are curious and open to the world.
A still from Baazigar
You've churned out two books in quick succession. Is there anything else you're working on currently?
There was a slight overlap where I was in the final stages of editing The Runaways and writing New Kings but the fact that they came out so close together is more a function of publishing schedules rather than my being able to work fast! I haven't started working on anything new. Hopefully, I will get back to work soon though.
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