Culture Is Not Innocent: An Interview with Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto discusses her new book on pop culture from the Global South, which goes above and beyond, among other things, the "sluggish, bloated, less urgent" films dominating Hollywood.
New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop
Columbia Global Reports
Fatima Bhutto's latest book, New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-pop (Columbia Global Reports, 2019), investigates the burgeoning cultural movements from the Global South that currently pose a challenge to the cultural dominance of the USA. A short, well-researched, and engaging book, it contains elements of travelogue as well as cultural studies, taking the reader to meet a variety of people in diverse locations, from Bollywood fans high in the Andes to K-pop songwriters in Gangnam, Seoul.
Prior to this project, Bhutto wrote poetry and a work of personal history Songs of Blood and Sword (Nation Books, 2011), which traces her family's history across four generations and focuses in on her father's assassination. Her two prior novels, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Viking, 2013) and The Runaways (Viking, 2019), deals differently with how poverty and violence can spur on extremism. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon does so in the time span of a single morning in Pakistan's tribal area of Waziristan, while The Runaways takes a broader approach, taking place in the UK and Iraq in addition to Bhutto's native Pakistan.
We caught up with her to discuss New Kings of the World, the current state of global pop culture, and more.
What has been the response to New Kings of the World since it was published in September?
It's been a good time for the book to come out as we are in a moment where the West is fighting on all fronts to cling onto its position on the top of the heap and it's clinging on for dear life, whether we're talking trade wars, culture wars, Brexit, the breakdown of Europe, etc. So people seem curious about New Kings of the World in a way that they might not have been a few years ago – if they're readers from America/Europe they are now alert to these threats. If they're readers from the Global South, they're watching this changing dynamic with great interest.
Your previous books, apart from your memoir, have been novels. What made you switch to non-fiction, and what attracted you to this topic?
I began my life as a writer with non-fiction. I wrote journalism and a newspaper column in Pakistan for long before my novels. Songs of Blood and Sword is often described as memoir but it was my father's life and assassination I was writing about – I figured into that story only briefly, so I approached it as a work of research and understanding.
As a reader, I love both fiction and non-fiction. As a writer, some topics are only doable as fiction and others are clearly made for non-fiction. I've always been fascinated by the topic of culture, especially the politics of popular culture and soft power. I wanted to write about the rise of Asia and the politics behind its rising cultural giants because it seemed to be something we need to be watching at this moment in time.
Do you see fundamental differences between these two modes of writing?
Yes, of course. They're like learning two very different languages and they require very different muscles. When I'm writing fiction, I'm obsessed by an idea that is mine and mine alone – no one needs to know what I'm thinking about and what I'm doing because I need concentration, solitude, and focus in order to fully imagine the world that I'm creating.
Just on that front, non-fiction is less secretive and more collaborative because you need to go out and speak to people and dig out information. It requires you to test your idea out constantly. Fiction is imaginative and lonely, but vastly more liberating, than nonfiction is.
Did you encounter any significant obstacles when writing New Kings of the World? Were the various people you met on your travels supportive of the book's aims?
It was a book that had to be updated up until the last moment. Culture moves so quickly and the countries I wrote about are constantly evolving and changing so that was challenging. I wish I could have written about China too but Columbia Global Reports had a very strict 50,000 word limit and so there's no way to even begin approaching China within that.
Yes, the people I met along the way were, if not supportive, then curious about the book's aims and willing to open up to me and allow me space to look for what I needed.
Was the book's structure focused on Bollywood, dizi, and K-pop right from the start? Or was it shaped by your research, and your journeys?
Those three were there from the start but I initially wanted to include two other countries/cultures: Nollywood, to look at the world of culture online, in particular to do with streaming. Netflix has 158 million global subscribers but Nigeria has streaming platforms with huge numbers, double that, and they're not watching Avengers but Nollywood dramas and comedies.
The second thing I wanted to include was IPL (Indian Premier League) and the franchising of sport, in this case cricket, which is a game basically only formerly colonized countries play into something along the NBA or NFL. But the space to do justice to those topics was an issue so they were cut during the proposal stage.
You start the book with your childhood memories of American popular culture. Was there a specific moment that first made you realize that America is losing ground in pop culture terms?
There's not one particular moment, no, but many little ones. The way Turkish dizi exploded onto the scene in Pakistan was a curious moment. I wasn't watching Magnificent Century at the time but I remember being struck by how everyone, everywhere you went, in Karachi was glued to the TV.
I was in Mauritius in 2008-ish and remember seeing a poster for a Pakistani film and thinking, what's this doing here? Gangnam Style and its worldwide appeal was another interesting moment. Though we have had songs that break out in that fashion before, it was interesting to see huge companies like Youtube's reaction – they famously had to reset their counter as it was previously thought nothing could get over a billion views. As a viewer,
American films in the past few years seemed to be sluggish, bloated, less urgent and striking as things coming out of Iran, Korea, and beyond.
You write at length about the megastar Shah Rukh Khan, whom you also interviewed. How would you summarize his appeal to those unfamiliar with his work? Did meeting him change your opinion of him?
It's difficult to summarize Khan now, especially in light of his remarkable silence during this enormous protest movement against India's repressive citizenship laws that are galvanizing young people in India. I think Khan's appeal has taken and will take a serious hit.
Previously, he was seen as the classic good guy next door but yet one with massive star appeal that transcended class, religion, ethnicity. But in this fraught political age, being a good guy next door isn't going to cut it. You have to stand for something too.
We tend to lament the lack of common media experiences these days, and to bring up 'reality bubbles' and point to viewing habits that are individualized by streaming services. Yet your book frequently highlights how these new pop culture phenomena bring people together. Do you set much store by the idea that new media technology is making us more isolated?
Well, it's certainly more lonely for some of us. We don't go out to watch movies as a community, we watch them at home in our pajamas. But keep in mind that this lonely generation has access to online banking – which they need to have a Netflix subscription – steady electricity and strong internet connections.
Hundreds of millions of people don't have those. They are watching TV in the village tea shop like they always have. So I think we have to separate the minority from the majority and the majority is still watching entertainment they way they always have – together.
Dizi, the Turkish dramas that have become incredibly popular in markets as diverse as Southeastern Europe, the Arab world, and Latin America, achieve what you describe as "the perfect balance between secular modernity and middle class conservatism." Could you explain why dizi's audience feel a need for this balance?
People feel alienated from the excesses of Hollywood – all the violence, drugs, sex, explicit language and content. Dizi manages to give audiences the landscape of modernity minus the excesses. So it looks beautiful, it's got high production value and all the fast cars and signs and symbols of modern living, but the language isn't profane. You can watch the show with the entire family and no one is made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, there's no nudity and scandal is handled by characters attempting to live honourable, just lives.
Why should you have to watch old, folksy entertainment if you want to avoid violence and profanity? Why can't one be allowed access to modernity without having to buy into a libertine lifestyle?
Dizi's fans are adamant that these shows are not soap operas. Apart from the feature-length episodes, what else distinguishes dizi from typical soap operas?
A lot of dizi are based on Turkish literary classics, so they are not a revolving door of trashy plots and banal dialogue but the opposite – refined plots and very poetic language. They also avoid the typical soap stereotypes, they're not about paternity feuds and divorces but about grand ideals and history. (Though of course, they are really about love like soaps often are.)
Dizi are very slow burning. That's their genius, if you ask me: that you can spend three hours on one episode and then they leave you on a cliffhanger and there are you are desperate for the next three hours.
Your feelings about Bollywood and dizi seemed mixed, admiring some aspects while having reservations about others, but you seem cooler on K-pop. Do you think K-pop has any redeeming features?
I'm laughing as I read this. Look, K-pop is fun, dance-y music and I'd be lying if I said I didn't still listen to it at the gym. I think K-pop takes standard pop music and does something innovative with it, but to me, ultimately it's still a bait and switch.
New Kings of the World must have gone to press around the time the Burning Sun scandal [an entertainment and sex scandal in Seoul] was really starting to make headlines; you mention it briefly. Have you been following the scandal since, and how do you think it has affected the K-pop industry?
Yes, that's right. I have followed it since and think that the scandal and the recent rash of suicides are both issues that haven't been properly addressed by the industry. One speaks to the power the stars have and the other to their powerlessness and lack of support. They are seen as gods once they hit a certain level of success and that's dangerous.
On the other side, the industry is ruthless about their training and grooming and many stars face mental health issues, depression, and other anxieties and aren't really given a place of support to deal with that.
You also suggest that K-pop may soon be eclipsed by the Chinese pop music industry. What other emerging pop cultural phenomena do you think we should be watching the horizons for?
The Chinese in general. They've invested heavily in Hollywood studios and that's not because they like the films, they're learning how to do them and once they learn, they're going to take their money and do it at home.
I think TikTok is fascinating too – again, it's a Chinese company, and when it launched it had the highest valuation of any start up in the world. It's got more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat and you don't need to have a lot of friends or be famous or beautiful to make it big on there – you can be no one, with no followers one minute and then rack up one million views on your post the next.
It's on all our phones and think of what they are learning about us as we scroll endlessly through the videos.
Perhaps Hollywood has started to realize it has been too inward-looking, and that it's losing ground abroad. We're seeing attempts by Hollywood to catch up. Crazy Rich Asians, and the focus on South Korean locations in Marvel films, are a couple of examples that spring readily to mind. What do you think of these attempts?
They're too little too late. Look at the Dakota Fanning film, Sweetness in the Belly (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, 2019) where an Ethiopian refugee drama is seen through her, a white woman who plays a child abandoned in the country who is then raised as a Muslim.
Is Hollywood having a laugh? They can't talk about Muslims unless they look like Dakota Fanning? It's absurd! And I think that this Oscar season shows how deeply entrenched the industry is in the stories of white protagonists.
I'm assigning excerpts from your book for a class I'm teaching this Spring. What message would you give to young people studying film or popular culture for the first time?
Culture is not innocent. Entertainment, which we come to to be entertained and enlightened rather innocently ourselves, is coded with political messaging and agendas. We should absolutely enjoy our entertainment but we should be more questioning of it.
Finally, what will your next project be?
The Runaways will be coming out in the US in August of this year, so I'm looking forward to that but I haven't begun work on anything new as yet…