Fatima Bhutto's book on the rise of showbiz from the global south

Fatima Bhutto
I don’t think Shah Rukh Khan will be delighted at being described “like a subcontinental uncle” but that’s how Fatima Bhutto sees him as he leans towards her and says, sotto voce, “Fatima, I don’t mean to be personal, but it’s a long drive. Do you want to go to the rest room before we leave?”

To be fair to Khan, he probably had her best interests at heart, as they set out from Dubai to Abu Dhabi by road, to watch Shah Rukh shoot for an Egyptian television show. And no, we are never told if Bhutto took him up on the offer as they sat in the palatial 1,200 square meter Imperial suite at the Palazzo Versace. But we do get an intimate glimpse into the surreal world of Bollywood superstars, where white-gloved waiters are tasked with bringing perfect cups of Nespresso at a steady stream, and two hour delays are so normal that they don’t elicit much comment, let alone consternation.

Korean rap star Psy
But while this chapter, an extended interview and encounter with Khan, makes for interesting reading, it does tend to unbalance Bhutto’s book, The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture, whose central premise is that the days of American soft power are fast ending, and the East is rising to take its place. Spending 20 pages on a glossy magazine-style profile of Khan in a slim volume that takes in everything from Turkish TV shows and South Korean K-pop singers is probably 10 pages too many; even if the Bollywood superstar does make for good copy. (Even in the Turkey section, as she watches a scene being filmed, Bhutto takes time out to tell us in an aside that “I notice that Shah Rukh Khan alone wore more make-up in Dubai than this entire cast seems to have on.”)

New Kings Of The World: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture | Author: Fatima Bhutto | Publisher: Aleph, Price: Rs 499, Pages: 184
When Bhutto does make her central thesis come alive with facts, figures and anecdotes, the book gets much, much better. Her section on India and Bollywood, for instance, in which she traces the rise of Hindu nationalism through the prism of Hindi cinema, makes its point with brevity and precision. She seamlessly weaves in the part migration from rural communities to urban centers plays, along with the starring role enjoyed by the NRI community that revels in the idea of an idealised India that bears no real resemblance to the country as it is today.

A still from the Turkish soap Magnificent Century
She tracks how Bollywood went from telling stories about village communities to setting its movies in palatial mansions in the glittering capitals of the world. All the while, as she points out, “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.” The arc stretches all the way from Uri: The Surgical Strike.

Shah Rukh Khan
But Bollywood is not the only Eastern import taking the world – including, improbably enough, Peru in faraway Southern America, to which Bhutto devotes an entire chapter – by storm. There is also the invasion of Turkish TV shows – soap operas, melodramas, telenovelas, call them what you will – that the Turks themselves insist on dignifying with the term dizi (soap opera). Some of them are period dramas, harking back in a nostalgic haze to the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey was the world’s “superpower”, while others are firmly rooted in the modern age, dealing with such difficult themes as gang rape or the more commonplace, forbidden love.

Of these shows, the most successful was The Last Emperor, the Sultan is modelled closely on Erdogan, with a “symbiosis between the two proud leaders who were unafraid to confront the West and who dreamed of positioning Turkey as central to pan-Muslim unity”.

The section on the South Korean music phenomenon known as K-pop seems to have been tagged on almost as an afterthought. This is the weakest section of the book, running to fewer pages than the ones devoted to Shah Rukh Khan alone, and doesn’t really do justice to the subject. It is as thin, in fact, as the K-pop stars are contractually obliged to remain, and the book suffers as a consequence, appearing uneven and even, incomplete. I wonder that the editors didn’t just excise this section, given its essentially ephemeral nature.

In the end, this book works best as a look into the world of Hindi cinema, and how it defines not just the idea of India inside the country but also across the world. And it gives us an understanding of Turkey, one of the most crucial countries in the world order today, through a glimpse of its popular culture. And for that alone, it is well worth a read.

New Kings Of The World
The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture
Fatima Bhutto
Rs 499

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