Author and memoirist Fatima Bhutto’s slender but potent volume for Columbia Global Reports (an imprint from Columbia University devoted to long-form journalism), surveys a shift in global popular culture in which America’s soft-power dominance is facing challenges from local art forms. Resembling three old-school New Yorker magazine articles—or rather, two articles and a slim coda—her book charts the respective impact of Hindi cinema, Turkish television dramas and Korean pop music in redefining their national culture and moving into the broader marketplace.
Bhutto frankly admits her embarrassment over her youthful zeal for Hollywood blockbusters and trashy American television. She’s hardly alone—perhaps a dozen Chinese women in their 30s have told me, if more fondly, that without Friends, English comprehension in their country would’ve stalled indefinitely—but few have followed the situation through so many ramifications:
American pop culture was worshipped by a Third World elite that wanted to modernize so badly, they built big dams, took extortionate loans in order to industrialize, and empowered cabals of bureaucrat-technocrats in their top-heavy government. But they had no sense of how to reimagine their own selves and were left to mimic the codes and mores of posh Westerners.
SRK was the navigator through which rising India negotiated the riches, tensions and violence of globalization.
Given her cultural background, it’s little wonder that Bhutto devotes more than half of the book to Bollywood—and finds her ideal poster boy in Shah Rakh Khan, Hindi cinema’s most successful actor, known among his fans simply by his initials, “SRK.” Bollywood has often resonated in places like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa specifically because its messages and mores are so different from Hollywood’s. As Bhutto reminds us that Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) was known in the Soviet Union as “Comrade Awara”, I recall a Chinese driver bursting out in songs from Nasir Hussain’s Caravan (1971).
Today those films seem positively historic, not least in production values. As India has ascended, so too has its cinema. The growing affluence of the Indian diaspora (or NRIs, for Non-resident Indians) has contributed heavily to Bollywood’s geographic network, but so too have Indians abroad filtered back home as popular cinematic subject matter.
Enter “SRK”. Khan, as Bhutto points out, is an unlikely heartthrob, having spent much of his early career playing unsavory roles, yet he moved from “stalker to softie without missing a beat.” This is partly because, in a world filled with well-groomed singer-dancers, Khan can truly act. Such is his dramatic range that he has played multiple, contrasting characters in films like Duplicate (1998), a remake of Don (2006) and Fan (2016).
More important for Bhutto, though, is Khan’s record in choosing hundreds of roles that resonate well beyond the screen. Though a Muslim himself, he has played only six Muslim characters, instead favoring the international, cosmopolitan image to which his countrymen aspired: “Khan was the navigator through which rising India negotiated the riches, tensions and violence of globalization,” she writes.
On screen, he was proof that you could be a wealthy New York football player and still be spiritually and emotionally guided by traditional Indian values.
So many of Khan’s characters have claimed to be “King of the World” that the phrase has come to brand the actor himself. But Bhutto tempers that unbridled ambition with Khan’s corresponding physical signature, an open-armed gesture that becomes expansive as well as inclusive. How the actor’s allure will survive the decidedly divisive era of Narendra Modi still remains to be seen, particularly with cinematic rivals like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan having more traction with the current regime. But as Bhutto’s globetrotting observations from Dubai to Peru reveal, “SRK” remains India’s prime cinematic export.
With dizi, Turkey’s thriving television genre, Bhutto moves from ardent acolyte to recent convert. Taking the reader along as she makes her way through Magnificent Century (2011-2015), Bhutto sees a different phenomenon. Unlike Bollywood, where characters aspire to global cosmopolitanism, Turkish heroes “were modern, but not Westernized”—a delicate distinction frequently obscured and often politicized.
The Turks had done something neither the Americans [nor] the Indians … did: They had achieved the perfect balance between secular modernity and middle-class conservatism.
In contrast to Bollywood, which generally avoids political issues, dizi has become part of public discourse. Even as Turkish dramas have made inroads in Latin America—a region not known for its Muslim population, and hardly lacking in television dramas—several dizi were removed from Saudi airwaves. The official charge of salacious content is effectively refuted by Bhutto’s descriptions of the show; the real problem, she suggests, is the Saudi’s outrage at the effectiveness of Turkey’s soft power.
With K-pop, it’s difficult to gauge whether more plastic goes into cosmetic surgery for the performers or in manufacturing the music itself.
The book’s final layover in Seoul unfortunately reduces Bhutto to a cultural tourist, with her account of the K-pop industry relying more on existing documentation than first-hand reporting. This is a shame, since the subject is nearly as rich and far more relevant in East Asia. South Korea’s entertainment industry has generated momentum comparable to the nation’s hard manufacturing, often employing the same brutal, calculated efficiency.
Not that “calculated efficiency” is entirely new. Back in the 1990s, the composer Dave Soldier wrote “The Most Wanted Music”, a collection of pop-music clichés based on Komar & Melamid’s quasi-scientific “People’s Choice” surveys of popular taste. But where Soldier delivered a cheeky piece of conceptual art, K-pop has become a multimillion-dollar assembly line.
It’s difficult to gauge whether more plastic goes into cosmetic surgery for the performers or in manufacturing the music itself. Bhutto cites New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s description of “Cultural Technology,” the record label SM’s formula for success, whose stipulations include what chord progressions and the precise color of eyeshadow to use in each country.
Bhutto is attuned to K-pop’s limitations, particularly commercial and political upsets in China, where recent anti-Korean sentiment generated nakedly protectionist policies. But she seems to have missed that the genre’s biggest global hit—Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, with more than three billion YouTube views—was made entirely outside the system, which pretty much questions the system itself.
Until new platforms appear that truly change that picture, the old hegemony remains in place.
As a cultural critic, Bhutto’s observations of works and genres are so precise in their detail, so expansive in their implications, that it nearly hides the fact that she shows little knowledge at all of the industries that make them. Though she credits America’s entertainment dominance since the 1950s as a result of the country’s military presence and post-war distribution system, her implications that this was conscious wielding of “soft power” is rather putting the cart before the horse.
The changing playing field she documents has less to do with “America’s plummeting prestige” than with fundamental shifts in the entertainment industry. Seeing a movie used to be public event; now viewers can stream at will. The US, once limited to three major television networks, now has literally hundreds of channels hungry for content. With those developments have come leaps in technology making it much easier for newcomers to enter the field. America dominated the entertainment industry because, frankly, few could afford to compete. Now that any playwrighting major in America has a genuine shot at showrunning a TV series, the possibilities are astonishing for the best talents around the world.
Bhutto seems so concerned with soft power that she often forgets the hard kind. She watches films on Netflix and streams television on YouTube—both of which, last time I checked, are American companies that ultimately determine their content. Until new platforms appear that truly change that picture, the old hegemony remains in place.