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Once Upon a Time in Bollywood

Published in Mar-Apr 2020

Fatima Bhutto’s New Kings of the World in review.

It wasn’t the title of Fatima Bhutto’s new book, New Kings of the World: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture (NKOTW) that convinced me to buy it. It was the fact that Shah Rukh Khan – and Rekha – graced its cover, making me think it would be worth adding to my Bollywood book collection.

However, NKOTW is not a typical Bollywood book which usually focuses on a specific actor, genre or time period; instead, NKOTW centres on Bhutto’s argument that American pop culture’s heyday (and consequently its ‘soft power’) is over and Hindi films, Turkish dizi (TV shows) and Korean K-Pop are now dominating the world. To support her argument, Bhutto is armed with statistics and several interviews; the wit and vibrancy of her writing prevents NKOTW from having an academic bent.

Bhutto attributes the rise of Eastern pop culture to two main factors: increasing urbanisation and the fact that audiences the world over relate to the universal themes prevalent in Hindi films and dizi more than the sex and violence in American TV shows and films.

To prove her point, Bhutto traverses several continents and cities. Her first stop is Peshawar, hometown of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and, more importantly, where Shah Rukh Khan’s family once lived. We are then transported to Palazzo Versace in Dubai to meet King Khan and Bhutto spends a considerable amount of time – and pages – on him. (I can’t figure out whether or not she is smitten by SRK’s charm, although she does observe that “he smiles often but shyly, checking first to see if you’re smiling too. If you are, the hero’s full lips widen and dimples appear in his cheeks.”) We are then taken to Lima – not to explore the global rise of the South American telenovela – but to meet droves of Khans’ fans whose love for Bollywood can be traced to the fifties.

To explore the impact of the Turkish dizi, many of them dubbed and broadcast around the world, Bhutto travels to Istanbul, and encounters Dr Arzu Ozturkmen who teaches oral history at Bogaziçi University. “The first agreement we should make is: don’t call them soap operas… We are very much against this,” he scolds her. Like Bollywood films, dizi are emotionally “moving”, says Halit Ergenç the lead actor of Magnificent Century, unlike American TV which doesn’t “touch the feelings that make us human.” Bhutto points out that in 2008, The Bold and the Beautiful’s viewership was 26.2 million, whereas Magnificent Century’s is at least 200 million.

Bhutto then lands in Seoul to explore the K-Pop phenomena, which forms the basis of NKOTW’s epilogue. In 2016, K-Pop music videos were watched 24 billion times on YouTube – 80% of the viewers lived outside South Korea. Like Bollywood and dizi, K-Pop is partially popular because videos are “nowhere as near as suggestive as J-pop or American music videos… even the lyrics are squeaky clean…” In short, they can be viewed with the entire family.

Although NKOTW is worth reading, it is not to say that the book is not without flaws; when chronicling the rise of the Hindi film hero, Bhutto goes straight from the Raj-Dev-Dilip triumvirate to angry young man Amitabh Bachchan, without mentioning Rajesh Khanna, for whom the word ‘superstar’ was coined. She states that Mithun Chakraborty was Bachchan’s successor which was not the case and overlooks the rise of actors like Anil Kapoor who were in line for Bachchan’s throne, especially during his bizarre days of Shahenshah, Toofan and Jaadugar. Nonetheless, all things considered, NKOTW makes for a riveting read, thanks to the fast-paced travelogue-style Bhutto employs and is definitely worth reading for any pop culture enthusiast.

Book Details:
New Kings of the World: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture
By Fatima Bhutto
Liberty Publishing
165pp; Rs 995
ISBN: 978-969-872-921-9

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