Understanding changing cultural mores

February 16, 2020

New Kings of the World by author Fatima Bhutto employs critical thinking, historical research and sharp wit to paint a thorough picture of the present global mass culture.

A dozen books dedicated to Bollywood and yet it is Fatima Bhutto’s latest (non-fiction) book, New Kings of the World that paints a thorough picture of the biggest film industry in the world. Employing critical thinking skills, shrewd observation, historical research and interviews - for those you must read the book - she deciphers not only the changing face of global pop culture but what are some of the reasons leading to this change all across.

When you speak of global mass culture, it is devoid of a truism without mentioning Bollywood. The pulse of the subcontinent, its changing face, as Fatima writes, is inexorably linked to – among other things – the weakening of the American soft power.

Fatima Bhutto’s prose, written beautifully, takes us to the city of flowers, Peshawar, in its introduction chapter. She intricately explains how the Qissa Khwani bazaar, home to storytellers, since time immemorial is decked by images of one man: Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). Dilip Kumar, writes Fatima, was born here and for a period, people were enchanted by him, before SRK arrived many decades later and became the face of Bollywood.

In her book, Fatima writes about a tunnel walkway that leads to Shah Wali Qatal, and learns SRK - who was born in India - had visited twice and how people still visit, along with a house that belonged to his father, an anti-colonial activist.

What she also uncovers is why Dilip Kumar, born with the name of Yusuf Khan, changed his name as did many aspiring stars of the time including Meena Kumari and Madhubala. It was, as Fatima writes, the year 1937 and All India League of Censorship, “a self-designated Hindu cultural police” had reached a decision to purge the industry of Muslims. And so, Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar as did others, who dispensed with their Muslim names and adopted Hindu ones to forge a career in Hindi cinema. Before SRK though, time belonged to the likes of Raj Kapoor, Indian cinema’s biggest icon in 50s and 60s with his films running from the then-Soviet Union to “Latin America”.

Both Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were friends, Fatima tells us, and left the storyteller’s bazaar before partition led to the bloodiest migration in history. Fatima writes about a tunnel walkway that leads to Shah Wali Qatal, and learns SRK, who was born in India, had visited twice and how people still visit, along with a house that belonged to his father, an anti-colonial activist.

In the introduction, Fatima notes that Shah Rukh Khan along with Korean pop music and Turkish soap operas is the emergence of a “vast cultural movement from the South” and rightfully reiterates its global mass appeal and how it is a challenge to American soft power.

The American pop culture did not have commonality but it did have universal appeal particularly to the Third World “elite”. Our appeal for jeans, rock ‘n’ roll music and Coca-Cola may have come from American pop culture but it was made appealing by soldiers, who were deployed to American bases. Elvis Presley, Rambo, Bruce Springsteen, Friends, Sex in the City and Britney Spears - all have been icons of American cool at one point or another. But, Fatima explains, that within a global context, as rural shifted towards urban vicinities; they found no joy or connectivity with these symbols of American cool. There was no commonality. As this dominance continued for decades, a time finally came for the hubris to fall.

The answers was found in Turkish soap operas that dealt with issues a global mass migration could related to a lot more than they could to Friends featuring six adults spending a decade hanging out at a coffee house in New York City. Even as in Pakistan, many of us watched Friends, Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, there was no commonality and the shift eventually came.

As Fatima picks up on with shrewd observation, there are new cultural icons such as Turkish soap opera, for one. She writes, “The Turks had done something neither the Americans, the Indians, or our own shows did: they had achieved the perfect balance between secular modernity and middle-class conservatism.”

Offering some more context as to why Turkish soaps have become new cultural superheroes, Fatima notes, “Turkish television shows blazed through the subcontinent because their heroes were modern, but not Westernised, moving through the fractures and fissures of the world defeating violence and victimization, propelled purely by the righteous power of values.”

From Turkish soaps to why K-Pop (Korean Pop Music) is the new thumping beat of the world to discourse with Shah Rukh Khan, Fatima writes in crisp detail and takes us to a time and place we may never have seen. She travels to find details other authors would probably miss if not for the sheer effort that has gone into this impressive non-fiction book. This isn’t another shoddy book on pop culture but one that also places Pakistan (not only) as one of the faces of changing cultural aggregators, also elaborating on how it happened. Changing politics often played a role.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the legendary qawwal who collaborated with Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Michael Brook (Mustt Mustt), and Peter Gabriel (Night Song), before his passing in 1997 put Pakistan on the map but long before him, it was Nazia Hassan with ‘Disco Deewane’ that had a dictatorial nation dreaming of a better tomorrow.

If Pakistan, as Fatima poses, was and is still following Bollywood, when it comes to drama serials, we have been a step ahead. Aangan Terha, Tanhaiyaan, Khuda Ki Basti were not only watched in Pakistan but “were watched on bootleg cassettes in India and had devoted followings”.

As television commercialized in Pakistan, private channels sprang, Fatima admits, and it eventually led to the glorious return of Pakistani dramas in elaborate fashion, with following beyond the border.

It must be added that this is not a feel-good work of non-fiction. Imperial neo-power and how it affected the world and shaped it, it includes dictators, the global world order, the changing global world order, the influence of technology and much more.

As India indulged in TV dramas that became known for “saas-bahu” sagas and over-the-top melodrama, Pakistan shone again. “Sub-continental audiences turned to Pakistani dramas by 2000s for the same reason they had many decades earlier: because they were realistic and socially conscious dramas built around the tension of middle-class life,” writes the author. But the book admits that just as Pakistani dramas were rising, they were challenged by the superiority of “an unexpected phenomenon: Turkish soap operas”.

Through the book, we traipse across borders, from Beirut, to Lima, to Istanbul, Seoul, UAE and Pakistan and through our own history. The book has facts you never knew about Pakistani pop culture that will make you re-think what TV shows say about a nation. An anthropological approach to a subject by an extremely strong writer with several books to her name, the writing is smart, descriptive and reads as more than just a listicle.

Ultimately, this book is a great read for not only pop culture mores but for anyone who is interested in historical non-fiction, the rise of South, and Shah Rukh Khan, of course.

New Kings of the World by Fatima Bhutto: Understanding changing cultural mores