Author: Fatima Bhutto
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Click Hereto buy New Kings of the World on Amazon.
Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist, is having conversation about propaganda cinema in Turkey, with Fatima Bhutto in her book New Kings of the World. She asks, “[H]ow can you be both obedient and create something culturally or artistically valid?”
This question, that feels more like a statement, casts aspersion on not just Turkey, but India too; specifically Hindi cinema which has moved into a milieu of producing content that largely veers between propaganda and apolitical, lazy urban narratives.
Fatima Bhutto in her concise book, spanning 143 pages, tries to write about the growing bulwark against “Western” soft power of culture. She writes primarily about Hindi cinema, which she prefers to call Bollywood, but there are brief chapters about the revolution of Turkish drama, or Dizi, and K-pop from South Korea. There are moments in Lima, Peru, where she speaks with members of competing Shah Rukh Khan fan clubs. She also shadows Khan himself in Dubai for a day. It’s a book that is a mix of deep descriptions of these conversations which meander, framed by statistics and news reports of contemporary politics.
Bhutto’s central thesis is the following: The biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since World War 2 is the growing culture of cinema and music in and around India, Turkey, and South Korea.
She uses American military deployment, which has been at the lowest in six decades, as a proxy for cultural influence. It’s not an entirely convincing argument. It doesn’t help that she cites statistics, for example of there being 14-15 million Indians going to the movies every day, way back from 2000. (When she does cite statistics, they tend to come in bunches, making it hard to parse what exactly the statistic is attempting to underscore) Since then the revolution of digital content and fall in foot traffic in theaters has been a conversation that such statistics pre-date. It further irks when she makes blanket statements like “Bollywood was born in the plays performed in Mughal court” as though you could pinpoint the origins of something as massive and polyphonic as cinema to a moment in time.
…the underlying romance of such a book- a flirtation with the magic of cinema embedded in the politics of an increasingly fraying world.
But of course, these are minor irritants. The larger canvas of the book is exciting because it jumps between continents and industries. In Peru, we are talking to people who have no knowledge of Hindi but consume Hindi cinema religiously seeing in it their aspirations and a reflection of their perceived nobility. (My Name Is Khan became medicine for a cancer afflicted woman) She also speaks about the local cinema in Peru that has been heavily influenced by Bollywood films that found a subtitled home in these far-flung countries. Conversations with professors and producers lend heft to the thesis. Her interjections of political commentary are very much helpful in understanding that cinema is never produced and viewed in a vacuum.
Right on the outset she quotes the late Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian religious tyrant “In a country, the road to reform travels through culture.” Reform has become the platform that gets politicians power, and culture the instrument through which they wield and concentrate this power.
Bhutto’s writing too is beautiful, pouring through with clarity and poignancy. Words like bartan, kharbooza, izzat, saas-bahu are not explained, it’s as if Bhutto knows exactly who her audience is and does not care much for either their knowledge or ignorance. You don’t mind much because of the underlying romance of such a book- a flirtation with the magic of cinema embedded in the politics of an increasingly fraying world. At one point Bhutto is talking to someone in Peru, a fan of Khan. “When I dream,” she confesses, “I imagine Mumbai.”
Click Here to buy New Kings of the World on Amazon.