'Hollywood is delusional, and so is Bollywood': Fatima Bhutto
Ahead of her appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Fatima Bhutto tells Anamika Chatterjee how pop culture reflects the changing ideas and ideologies of the time
Fatima Bhutto isn't one to mince words. Least of all when it comes to documenting social and political realities of our time. In her new book, however, the Pakistani writer deep dives into the world of Asian pop culture, focusing on Bollywood, the Turkish dizi and K-Pop, and how they have enfeebled the grip of American pop culture on the world. Her observations in New Kings of the World are also a larger commentary on how globalisation failed to live up to its promise of providing opportunity and access to millions across the world. As she prepares to visit Dubai to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Bhutto talks about her new book and the fascinating revelations that her research brought forth.
How did the failed promise of globalisation weaken American pop culture's grip on the world? Also, would you say values, such as diversity or gender sensitivity, have entered rather late in American pop culture?
Today, millions are moving from rural areas to cities. In 2015, over one billion people left their homes in search of a better life. Only a small percentage, 244 million, migrated abroad. The majority, some 763 million, moved from rural to urban areas within their own countries. Crammed into urban areas with no support, millions coming late to the modern world have found themselves unmoored. The promise of globalisation has been exposed as a lie - not all boats were lifted with the rising tide, only the super yachts of the mega rich were guaranteed smooth sailing everywhere, whereas everyone else is struggling simply not to drown. Globalisation didn't bring access, opportunity and wealth to hundreds of millions of people. And yes, you're very right - American pop culture has come far too late to issues of diversity. It's not enough to have one brown person or one East Asian person in a film and expect Asians to feel that their stories are being heard. It's simply too little too late - why should we watch this tokenism in Hollywood when we have libraries and libraries of films from countries all across Asia that do address our issues and stories? Your question is very insightful and yes, I think they were blind-sighted on the issue of gender sensitivity too. They didn't feel they needed to address it with more than tokenism either and were taken by surprise (and fear) by the #MeToo movement as they had managed to dodge the entire issue for decades.
What sort of influence did American pop culture have on developing societies earlier? Is the rise of Asian pop culture a rejection of the idea that Americanisation is modernisation?
It presented America as the paragon of modernity, freedom and development. If you were a developing society in the post-WWII era, you had one exemplar to aspire to: America. Pop culture was an enormous part of this project - it was largely achieved through the arts and soft power means. Asian pop culture and its ascendancy isn't a rejection of that; in many ways, it's a mimicry of it, but it presents itself as a new model: all those aspirational qualities but with the new addition of values. Asian pop culture is modern and innovative and shows a people on the rise but they are led by traditional, even conservative, values that safeguard the sanctity of the family, of women and so on.
How does the establishment use something like Bollywood or K-Pop as soft power?
Films or any cultural product are fantasies - they are not projecting reality. They are a fantasy that tells you how a nation or a people wish to be seen rather than what they really are. Bollywood films largely - at least in their most modern iteration - are about wealth and power and a historical revisionism that borders on the absurd. There are no Bollywood epics about the struggles of farmers, for instance, but we'll be here all day counting the number of films about wealthy bankers and their rich, happy families. K-Pop too is a fantasy that combines modernity and technology in appropriate, non-threatening ways. They are showing a youth unencumbered by worry or by anxiety, by very real mental health issues that we know exist in the foreground, not even the background, in the industry. We don't turn to culture to be reminded of how grim reality is, we come to it to escape and that's what it provides us. The establishment uses soft power to realign our gaze, what we're looking and thinking about, and they do that pretty successfully.
To what extent does Bollywood, dizi or K-Pop truly reflect the social realities of their respective countries?
A standard Bollywood film, for instance, is near-fantastical with larger-than-life scenarios that are not easily identifiable.Yes, you're right about Bollywood - it is the surface projection of a fantasy, not reality. I would say that dizi are the most interesting here because they have focused on difficult issues such as rape, honour and shame. What is Fatmagul's fault?, a famous dizi tailormade for the #MeToo era, is about a poor woman, who is gangraped by the rich sons of industrialists and politicians. They use their power to cover up their crime and to shut Fatmagul up. She has none of their power or influence or wealth. But she fights them; she fights not just her family but society as well as her rapists. Of course, it's a drama and there are exaggerations in it, but it is built upon real, urgent issues.
In a world where morality is ambiguous, platforms like Bollywood can, at times, oversimplify the complicated and complicate the simple. Does it do us more harm than good?
I think we have to take entertainment as entertainment - we shouldn't ask more from it than it's capable of delivering but, at the same time, we should be discerning as audiences. We should know, while we enjoy entertainment, that it's not innocent and that it's coded with the political messages and symbols of its makers.
An interesting section is where you meet Shah Rukh Khan in Dubai and then interact with labourers to understand what the actor means to them. What was the singularly most interesting observation you made about this particular following the actor commands?
Essentially, it doesn't have very much to do with him. Khan is a cipher through which people imagine their own dreams. When I was in Dubai and would speak to labourers or sweepers in malls about what they liked about him, they couldn't quite say. They liked that he was successful, that he was able to move freely in the world, that he was admired - things that they longed for themselves.
Ideologically, how do these narratives challenge the norm, if at all?
I'm not sure they challenge the norm as such but rather that they present new facets of it. Hollywood is delusional - it's about the good guy always winning, love always triumphing, human kind as forever valiant - but so is Bollywood in its own particular ways. The delusions are readjusted for culture and place, but it's the same thing with alternative packaging. What I found during my research that did challenge the norm were the Andean horror films from Peru - those were unusual and fascinating commentaries on race and power but most films don't do that kind of heavy, ideological lifting.
You have been a keen observer of the region's politics. Even your fiction is laced with larger social themes. What drew you to this subject?
I'm one of those people that thinks everything is political. I don't think there's any space that isn't guided and shaped by politics. So I'm always watching for spaces that seem unobserved or innocently approached - New Kings of the World was born out of all those factors. I think culture is a weapon in regional and global politics and I'm interested in who is using it and how.
As someone who was raised in Syria, went to the UK for higher education and now lives in Karachi, how have these different cultural contexts shaped the writer in you?
Someone who has lived in places they don't belong to or they are not from learns how to watch the world around them, I think. That's probably the greatest way all these places have shaped me. They've made me curious to learn about new environments and stealthy about observing people and places.