Fatima Bhutto's New Kings of the World
It's not just that my tastes have matured, it's that shiny American shows about rich, attractive people no longer seem as relevant to me as they once did (although they still obviously hold a certain appeal). And that's the topic of
Bhutto, who has previously written books including the novels The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and The Runaways, looks at the shift in "soft power" from the US to countries like India, Turkey and Korea.
America's pop culture, she writes in the introduction, was never universally appealing, but it was often the only or dominant pop culture globally. People across the world longed to access what American TV shows like 90210, Gossip Girl and Friends showed us: money, success, love, all achieved with a minimum of angst and overlaid with a shiny gloss.
But as the world's population moved from rural areas to the cities, they started to search of stories that reflected their reality, and for that, says Bhutto, they turned to Bollywood, which offered both escapism and a certain brand of aspiration (particularly when in the 1990s Indian films started focusing on Non-Resident Indians who had left home to find success, often abroad).
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For many, there's also a second appeal to these stories: their "conservative" sensibilities. Bollywood films rarely feature kissing, while sex is often only alluded to through nature imagery, a sharp contrast with many American shows, where passion is shown on screen and not just hinted at. Bollywood has long reach; Bhutto tracks fans in Peru and examines its reach to places like Nigeria. One thing fans across the world share in common is their love of actor Shah Rukh Khan.
One of the most entertaining parts of New Kings of the World is Bhutto's interview with Khan. Bhutto first meets him over coffee at a hotel, before accompanying him on a shoot in Dubai the next day. Khan comes across as thoughtful, introspective and personable, but also a little lost in his stardom; he's so beloved that it must be difficult to live anything resembling a normal life when out in public. That Bhutto spends time with him while he's filming for an incredibly bizarre prank show is an illustration of the oddness of Khan's life.
From Bollywood, Bhutto turns her attention to Turkish dizis (a type of drama) that appeal because their heroes are modern, but not Westernised, and often centre characters who lead regular lives: the maid, rather than the mistress, is the protagonist.
In a refugee camp in Beirut, Bhutto talks to Syrian refugees who love dizis; one tells her that she watches them for the stories, "love, defending love, defending each other", another says that she likes the way dizis handle class, that a woman from high society can fall in love with a man from a poor background.
And it's this political thread that runs through Bhutto's book; Bollywood films, Turkish dizis and Korean pop music (popularised by bands like BTS), aren't just about entertainment, they're also about power.
Bhutto looks at how entertainment reflects the political aspirations of a country, from the way India's prime minister Narendra Modi interacts with and gets support from Bollywood stars, to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vision of a Neo-Ottoman sultanate, to the way Korea focused its energy on pop culture as a way to recover from and guard against a repeat of the 1997 financial crisis.
TV, film and music are so often dismissed as frivolous, as what we engage in just to pass the time and to unwind, but Bhutto illustrates how they're so much more than that.
Entertainment has the power to reflect our experiences back to us, to make us feel empowered, and to give us a glimpse into a country's past, and a window into what it hopes for its future.
New Kings of the World is an astute, informative and addictive look at the globalisation of pop culture, and I could have read hundreds more pages of Bhutto's insights.
Perhaps it's good that this book isn't longer though, given that it's increased my Netflix list by dozens of shows and films, and added a host of new songs to my Spotify playlist. I'm off to make a dent in my to-watch list.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is books editor at Phoenix Magazine. She is a judge for the Jhalak Prize 2019. Sarah is editor-at-large at independent children's publisher Little Tiger Group. She regularly chairs author events, and is co-founder of BAME in Publishing, a networking group for people of colour in publishing.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahshaffi