Winds of change from the East

Winds of change from the East

New kings of the world: the rise and rise of eastern pop culture by Fatima Bhutto. Aleph. Pages 165. Rs499

Book Title: New kings of the world: the rise and rise of eastern pop culture

Author: Fatima Bhutto

Subhash Rajta

At one point in New Kings of the World, the author, Fatima Bhutto, claims Pakistan is widely considered the best in T20 cricket. “No ball, err, no way, not by any stretch of imagination,” one protests, quickly counting India, England, Australia and West Indies among the best. On its day, Pakistan can of course beat any of these teams, but that would be more of an upset now, not par for the course. Anyway, that's a minor aberration considering the book is not about cricket or, for that matter, any other sport. It's an entertaining and informative account of the rise of Eastern pop culture and how it's eroding the American hegemony in this sphere across the globe.

Spearheading this assault are India, Turkey and South Korea. From India, the challenge emanates in the form of Bollywood movies. Indian cinema is exported to more than 70 countries, including a nation like Peru which has little political, historical or cultural connect with India. Yet, Bollywood is quite a rage there. And that speaks volumes about the allure and reach of Indian cinema.

Turkey entered the fray on the back of its soap operas, known as dizis at home. For the last decade-and-a-half, dizis have been adapted the world over, even in the US, and are smashing viewership records. For the record, and better perspective, America's most watched TV show The Bold and the Beautiful was seen by 26.2 million; Magnificent Century, based on the life of King Suleiman, has been watched by over 500 millions! South Korea, meanwhile, has been denting the American dominance through its peppy music known as K-pop. Remember Gangnam Style? It went on to become the first music video ever to record one billion YouTube views.

What led to this revolution from the East? The author identifies the advent of neo-liberalism, which picked up pace following the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR, as the trigger. The opening up of the closed and protected economies like India and Turkey entailed a free flow of capital, better connectivity, better reach of cable, and huge migration from rural to urban centres. The displaced, unlike the urban elite who grew up on a steady diet of Hollywood and American TV, failed to connect with the predominant American fantasies of power, violence and sex. Instead, the Bollywood and Turkish stories, and their protagonists, modern yet moored in their culture and tradition, resonated more with them. In the struggle of these protagonists to build good and honest lives for themselves and move up the social ladder, the migrants saw their own lives mirrored on the screen. No wonder, the stock of Eastern pop culture is skyrocketing.

On the flip side, liberalisation, the author observes, has completely changed the character of Bollywood. From being anti-establishment and pro-poor, exemplified by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s and 80s, Bollywood has transformed into a chronicler of the lives of the rich and powerful. The hero is no longer poor — he lives in big mansions in cities or abroad, drives fancy cars and wears Gap and Nike, ala Shah Rukh Khan in Karan Johar movies. But even as Bollywood peddles the Shining India story, the author reminds that India is still home to the largest chunk of the desperately poor and has worse social indicators than several South Asian countries. Also, the growing politicisation of Bollywood to "tout government's agenda" doesn't go unnoticed. She lists movies like Akshay Kumar-starrer Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and The Accidental Prime Minister, among others, to substantiate her claim.

Overall, the author has the readers eating out of her hand, except for the cricket bit of course.