‘The moment culture becomes propaganda it ceases to be art’

January 19, 2020

Fatima Bhutto, writer and journalist, talks candidly about her latest non-fiction book New Kings of the World – Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi and K-pop on race and culture, Bollywood, Dizi and K-pop. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Fatima Bhutto

The News on Sunday (TNS): What was the idea behind the New Kings of the World?

Fatima Bhutto (FB): My initial pitch was about soft power and looking at how certain countries are taking over from America in these terms. It was also a little bit more political, trying to understand what had happened to America in terms of shifting from number one to some uncertain place. The pitch included all the three highlights that made it to the final version of the book, but I had also included Nigeria’s Nollywood, because of the streaming figures. Netflix, if I am not wrong gives its subscription figures somewhere between a 128 to 158 million, but the Nigerian platforms have double and triple of these figures, streaming-only local content. I also wanted to include IPL and the franchising of sports, but as you can imagine that is a whole book in itself so it had to go and Nollywood got cut out because someone else had a book on the subject for Columbia Global Reports. Of course, I would have liked to talk about China but there was no way to do China justice within 50,000 words. So I like to think of this book as starting the argument but there’s certainly much more to be said.

The final outline of the book in this manner shifted to talk more about global pop culture and the end of the American century and focusing more on who was taking over from it rather than just the end of the American soft power.

TNS: Culture is considered to be the soft power for any country but you have argued in the book that the American military supremacy helped export their cultural power. But aren’t tools of soft power generally considered to be the complete opposite of military tools?

FB: There is an impression that soft power is the opposite of military power but the cross over is not necessarily so neat and clean. There is quite a messy overlap between the two. They are not produced in their separate corners with guidelines that the two shall not meet, in fact, it’s the opposite. American military complex is largely responsible for spreading their culture around the world. At its height in 1968, over one million American troops were posted in over 54 countries, and they brought with them their music, moves, tastes, curiosities and longings. These remained long after those soldiers had packed up and left.

It is also interesting to note that the American culture paved the way for a lot of American military adventures; whether we are talking about the Rambo franchise or Jack Bauer in 24. Shows like these are helped by the powers of hard power. The CIA has a department that is designed to help filmmakers with their work; they will look at their drafts, give notes, give assistance with filming, access to locations etcetera provided that you are telling the right kind of story. A great example of this is Zero Dark Thirty. They were helped hugely by a CIA department as was the television series, Alias. These examples show that there is no separation between hard and soft power and it is most effective when there isn’t a separation, unfortunately.

This is not just the case of America alone. This goes back as far as the British Raj. A big part of the colonial project was education and it is that famous Minute on Indian Education written by Macaulay in 1835 after which they decided that English should be the medium of instruction throughout the Raj. That’s the reason we still have English medium schools in Pakistan today, that’s the reason children read Peter Rabbit and Enid Blyton, not because they are such amazing books. These things are hard-wired into political systems. Turkey is another great example of this today because, at the same time as we see Turkish cultural power growing all over the world, it coincides with the time when Turkey is positioning itself as a global political and military power. They have got military bases in Qatar, they are talking about entering Libya, they are involved militarily in Syria. It is not an accident that even before Turkish troops had engaged in Syria, the Syrian people were watching hours and hours of Dizi.

TNS: In your research were you able to identify why local cultures were undervalued in the first place hence making the western influence easier?

FB: It is not necessary that the local cultures were undervalued. India and Turkey are both great cases where local cultures were absolutely not undervalued. Local culture always beat western culture for them; if you have a Hollywood film in the theatre and a local film in the theatre, the local film will always do better.

I think in places where it might be undervalued is where the state has made no effort, where there is little thought and assistance going into the arts. You might consider Pakistan and Peru are good examples. Hollywood did well in Peru over local films because the local industry was always quite small, it was an elite industry portraying a tiny segment of European white Peruvians, their lives and stories rather than that of the majority. The majority felt much happier watching a Bollywood film than a Peruvian film because it reflected their experiences.

When the state is involved, assisting, encouraging and pushing the arts (and I don’t mean in a North Korean way here but more like the way in which France, say, has always held its artists in high esteem), I don’t think it is necessary that the local cultures are undervalued. Basically, in the east, the west comes in through a vacuum.

TNS: When do you think this cultural shift from the west to the east mentioned in your book began?

FB: You can’t really pinpoint an exact year and say that this exact moment is when it began. I think if we are looking for a place of origin, where the shift began and begins to take root, grow and morph into what it becomes, I would say it is that period in the 1990s when the neoliberal economic policy was pushed upon countries all over the world, from India to Korea to Turkey.

It’s also that moment of globalisation, where we started having that conversation about globalisation and the excitement of what it was supposed to bring. I think this was really the origin source. It was an enormous build-up but was a huge letdown. What I found was that essentially all the industries I write about now are not industries that were born in the 90s. These industries have been working and producing culture for decades. In India’s case, since its independence. People in Egypt and Uganda are watching Bollywood since the 70s.

The boom happened because the neo-liberal globalisation ended up to be a letdown. Neo-liberalism, as someone I interview in the book says, disarticulates so many things; it really ruptures cities, villages, family life and society. Globalisation promises the world and delivers nothing and that too is a rupture in its own way. It’s the betrayal of a promise and I think it is at that point that people start to look for new stories and people start to turn away from materialism and the kind of excessive everything represented by Hollywood, as it becomes a kind of shopping channel. It’s all about having cars and wealth. What happens if you happen to be one of the many hundred million who don’t have access to that kind of future or possibility? You turn away from it and you look for something else and that’s where Bollywood becomes appealing to places outside of a certain radius of Indian migration or bilateral foreign relation. That’s when they hit places really far away and not only hit them but take root there and grow.

In the case of Peru, the shift began much before. They were watching Bollywood in the 60s, it already meant something to them much before the disarticulation of this neo-liberalism.

TNS: Did you find any common denominators among these three industries that you chose, that can hint on why they are emerging as the new cultural powers?

FB: I think everything I found in my initial research showed me that something that connected all these industries was the question of values. It’s not like Bollywood and Dizi had a kind of moral base to it and K-pop didn’t. They all had that moral base, they all had that tradition and modernity mix together in a way that made their product exciting for young people but made it watchable for the family. They all are safe products in that sense and they are modern without that ideological burden of being western - that connected all three.

TNS: Describe the effects of migration, urbanisation, globalisation on the new cultural trends.

FB: Globalisation is introduced to us as a concept, it’s promised as the beginning of a new future, that with globalisation people are going to be able to move more freely, quickly and easily than ever before. It is going to be the opening of horizons - that means opportunity, wealth and access suddenly available to everybody. Not only will you be able to engage in global markets of the world but you will also be the captain of those global markets. Your rise is limitless, possibilities are limitless, that was the promise of globalization and of course, it wasn’t the reality.

Hundreds of millions of people migrate from villages to cities preparing themselves for this new wealth of access and opportunity. Seven hundred million people move from rural homes to the cities and what they find is that they are unmoored. They don’t have the social support structure that the village allowed them. In a village if you need a loan you, you live in a place where your family has lived for hundreds of years, people know you and will loan you the money, food or a tractor because you all are part of the same system. In the city who knows you? Nobody. You are just a number, a faceless stranger. Nobody is going to give you their hard-earned money or food or whatever, based on some kind of familiarity. It’s a dog eat dog world.

The city is also a shock to the system, it doesn’t have any of the structures of the village, it’s a lawless place, it’s a friendless place and it’s a degrading place, it’s a morally ambiguous place where people do many things to survive, that’s a shock and I think all those factors come together to create the world we live in today. They alter not only our imagination, they alter our fears, our struggles and we see that reflected in not only in the cultures that are produced but the way in which people respond to them.

TNS: Your book states that people are making the shift from Hollywood because, for the most part, the storylines are too mechanical to connect with a diverse audience. Bollywood’s storylines have also made a similar shift but still somehow are holding onto the cultural power. In your opinion will their life cycle follow that of Hollywood or are they doing something different that is giving them leverage?

FB: Bollywood’s storylines are shifting but they are shifting in a different manner than America’s. From the earliest days of Hollywood, they have always presented us military movies or movies of American soldiers at warfighting the good fight, bringing freedom to oppressed people around the world. That is true for actors like Steve McQueen, Sylvester Stallone and the cast of The Hurt Locker. This has always been a part of the Hollywood story but in terms of Bollywood, I think the shift we see is something different. Bollywood storylines are becoming not just uglier and more inflammatory, but they reflect the political mood of the ruling government at the moment, of the BJP.

Bollywood has an audience outside India, whether in Nigeria or in Peru or in Italy, not because of Bollywood’s military stories but rather because of those family stories, love stories, the songs and dance and all those exuberant displays of longing, wishing and wanting. The question is are they going to watch it when it’s pitting brother against brother. Are they going to watch films on Pulwama, Uri, and the glorification of Narendra Modi? I would say no.

I think the moment culture becomes propaganda and really quite thinly disguised and not well-done propaganda, it ceases to be art and it starts to become something else. The audiences around the world are instinctually very tough critics. We can absorb an agenda if it is given to us in a palatable way if the Trojan horse is built well enough, but if it looks like it has soldiers inside then we are suspicious and I think, unfortunately, that is what Bollywood looks like today. I would venture to say that I think Bollywood faces quite serious challenges especially of the three industries I write about, it faces the toughest challenges going ahead because of the way in which it has been co-opted by the state.

TNS: Is the Turkish Dizi’s popularity very much dependent on the phenomenon of migration or does religion play some role as well, in today’s world of otherisation?

FB: Turkish Dizi’s popularity is dependent on a number of things. They depend on rural to urban migration. People moving those great see a show like Fatima Gul and they understand something of their own difficulty. I really think that’s essentially what makes them so popular is that they are traditional and modern and really not elitist, for the most part, they are anti-elitist. Of course, there are shows about emperors, that is a different category altogether. Even the shows about love affairs set in a mansion and amongst rich families also takes time to depict the rest of the home. They depict the different strata’s of people working in that home. Forbidden Love (Ishq-e-Manoon) is one of those cases, it’s a multi strata drama so you have the couple who are really rich star-cross lovers, you have the governess of the house who has her own romantic drama and you have the driver of the house. They all are depicted with fairness, their dramas and sufferings are given as much place as anyone else.

They are so gripping because they depict a struggle that is not bound by class but what we do see coming up, is that more religiously inclined shows are becoming popular. At the very beginning of the Turkish wave, you really saw Turkish secularism and it is very recently with shows like Ertugrul, that we see a more Muslim or religious element coming to the fore and also becoming very popular. This is a new angle and I was just in Istanbul and speaking to one of the studio heads who said, that they tried doing edgier stuff, they tried to do the 45 minute long shows. They’ll watch them in Turkey but they don’t have the same global reach as the more traditionally conservative shows do. He also told me they are going to get much longer, gone are the 2 hours 15-minute shows, they’ll be hitting 3 hour-long episodes.

TNS: You mention the concept of glocalisation when discussing K-pop, elaborate on that?

FB: K-pop’s success is often put down to glocalisation, which simply means global and local. The way it is explained is that the music producers will take western tempo, rhythm or beat and they will localise it by speeding it up and it’s that accelerated speed that makes koreanises the song. Korea essentially takes a global idea and tweaks it with a couple of local touches and that is glocalization.

K-pop actually asks the question, what is Korean culture? It’s a difficult one to answer. I think Korean culture might be more in evidence when you talk about the television dramas or the movies which I didn’t write about in New Kings of the World as I was specifically looking at mass, not indie culture.

The culture is very particular to music in itself because when the Japanese were occupying Korea they organised people into choirs and had them sing choral music. After the Japanese left the Americans came through and they were playing rock n roll and people who had grown up singing in choirs now wanted to sing a different kind of music.

Koreans have always adapted the culture of their colonisers, they had no choice. The Japanese didn’t exactly give them a lot of room not to but they have always managed to add their own touches to it. Those tweaks might not look very large to you or me but they do mean something to the Koreans. The sweet and soft nature of the songs I think comes down to Korean culture; the fact that these are not explicit songs, their leaning and morals are very Korean. Singing about doing well in school is a very Korean thing rather than an American pop thing.

TNS: As the western cultural export is seen tied with their government and military might, are these three also becoming powerful because of similar reasons?

FB: Yes and no. In the South Korean case military might isn’t what makes them popular. It has nothing to do with it. It is the first non-western country to successfully export not one but all of their cultural products. It is because of the post-Asian crisis in 1997, Kim Dae Jung the Korean President made a conscious decision to rebuild his economy on the back of information technology and cultural industries. That’s the reason Korean culture whether we are talking about films, television, makeup, video games or music is so massive. It is important to say that it doesn’t need to be tied to military aims or strengths, it can be a question of supporting and encouraging the arts.

I think when we look at Turkey however, that’s a different case. The Turkish political project and cultural project seem to go hand in hand. Turkey is positing itself not just as a regional power but as a global power and its culture is encouraged, aided and pushed out as part of increasing its position in the world.

In India’s case the answer I think is also no, rather I think it hurts it in the sense that if Bollywood focuses itself on making military movies, I don’t think they will have so many people globally lining up to see them.

I think we make a mistake to say that it needs to be tied to hard power. Ideally what you want to do is produce good content and that will, of course, have the messages of your culture. Entertainment is always a portrayal of a people rather than what those people really are, it’s what you want to be seen as rather than the true depiction. Ultimately, all these industries reached the levels they did because of the power of their stories. That is always going to be the make or break. If the story is bad you can put whatever you want behind it and it won’t travel, it won’t fly. If the story is good, if it touches something in its viewers, something true and universal then there is no stopping how far it can go and ultimately that is what we have to think about.

TNS: Share what you have learnt about the scale of these new industries and their audience. You travelled to various places to see in person and interact with their fan base, what was the most surprising interaction?

FB: The question would be what wasn’t surprising and the answer would be nothing. Everything was surprising. News Kings of the World was an experience unlike any other for me because I learnt so much everywhere I went.

I was really surprised by Peru. I just had no idea that South Asian culture had spread so far to a place so disconnected from the subcontinent. There was very little written about it at the time I went there. I had only found a couple of scholarly articles but otherwise had access to very little. One of the most surprising things for me was meeting Jhonn who if you have read the book knowledge is a carpenter by trade but is a kind of cultural inspiration. He runs a film appreciation society, he has a Bollywood dance troupe, he is kind of a cultural ambassador. When I met him he was chatting to me about the films he was watching, he had watched Shan’s latest film and I was completely blown away, standing in the middle of downtown Lima, talking to a Peruvian about Shan’s film. I was quite surprised also at how much it meant to people in Peru, meeting people who only spoke Spanish and no English, who have never travelled outside their country but who could sing songs to pretty much any Bollywood film in almost perfect Hindi.

I was pretty surprised when I met Halit Ergenc who played Sultan Suleman in Mera Sultan or Magnificent Century, because he sang Jeway Jeway Pakistan to me. He told me that all Turkish school children grew up learning this and they sing it every year on children’s day!

The origins of K-pop were surprising as I thought like everyone else it to be a frivolous art form and realised its deeply political origins.

TNS: You briefly mentioned the strength the artists showed, standing up to Zia’s dictatorship through their craft. What we see today globally is a more complacent attitude, what’s your take on that and do you see any hope for change?

FB: This is something I thought about a lot. I think Pakistan has incredible potential. As discussed earlier that the thing that matters ultimately is the story, how good your story is and there is no question that Pakistan has phenomenal stories and writers. We know this from our theatre, television and actors. We know the richness and power of its culture whether we are talking about musicians, poets or anything. So it is not a question wishing for something that doesn’t exist. It exists in Pakistan. Why isn’t it being taken full advantage of?

I think the issue is a couple of things. I don’t think anyone has thought very seriously about it and not with a concerted effort. In the last 72 years, we see that not only do we have the potential we have a very courageous population who at the height of the most brutal dictatorship in the country’s history were willing to stand up to be part of art that criticized dictatorship, to be part of a movement that showed defiance to dictatorship.

What do you do with this rich potential? I don’t think the answer is that you make films about war. I think the answer is that you make content about the richness of the culture and to do that at a scale you need a certain confidence in the scope ahead of you and the possibilities; rather than always being on the defensive which I think we see a lot of. Why not have the confidence to explore topics like Taxila and Mohenjodaro? Why are we not making content that explores those histories? Why is Hrithik Roshan making films about Moenjodaro and not us? That’s laziness on our part and it makes no sense to be the chroniclers of our spectacular history. Just because they come from a pre-Muslim era? That is the beauty of Pakistan- the multitudes of history it holds, we should embrace that.

I think we can do both, we can have shows that explore the tolerance and richness of our culture and the current state of our culture and that means looking at everything not just focusing narrowly.

I always see hope for change and I think we are a country of surprises, and I say this knowing that tomorrow something could happen that completely proves everything I have said wrong and makes you sit up in your chair and say, Ah! I didn’t see that coming.

TNS: Name one Bollywood film, Dizi and K-pop song, which is on top of your list and you will be recommending to initiate people in these cultures.

FB: I always recommend Cukur (The Pit), if we are talking about Dizi, because that was the one I enjoyed the most. I always describe it as The Godfather but transposed in an Istanbul ghetto and I just thought it was brilliantly done. The production value is amazing and it had great suspense.

The Bollywood film I like the most not just while I was doing the book it’s not even in included, but over the past few years is Gully Boy. I think it is a great film because it reminds you of what was so compelling about Bollywood. The ability it had to shift its gaze on people who are otherwise not seen.

K-pop wise I am not really the most current at all. I have some songs still saved on my playlist. I really liked, Nobody by the Wonder Girls which is an old song, so I am not sure it gets me a lot of points with the modern crowd.

There is a lot of great films and culture coming out of Asia in general. A couple of films I will definitely recommend though they aren’t new include; the brilliant satire film called The Lizard, which has come out of Iran and the Lebanese film called The Traveler, which is really great. It’s about a travel agent who has never travelled before and leaves home for the first time.

The writer is a digital communications and marketing professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif

Fatima Bhutto sheds light on her book 'New Kings of the World'