In the 1950s, giddy with the glory of a blood-soaked independence, Bollywood churned out films that were high on "Nehruvian nationalism". Undying hope, inclusivity and righteousness formed the bones of films starring Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. In New Kings of the World (2019), Fatima Bhutto takes an inquisitive gaze into this trajectory of Bollywood and how Eastern pop culture is dampening Hollywood's firm grip on popular entertainment.
By the '70s, the young Bollywood protagonist became an indignant man from the rural region, socialism roiling within him. He wants to avenge the wounds inflicted on his community by a rich man and his gang. Come the '90s the landscape changes. Now, the protagonist is a posh Non-resident Indian who "drives a BMW and wears Nikes." He no longer dances amidst rustic Indian valleys abloom with flowers; his destination is London's Trafalgar Square. He only chases his love interests and makes a "pornographic show of wealth."
Leftist ideals once ran unfettered in Bollywood films, but their platform collapsed as the Soviet Union disintegrated and free-market capitalism imbued every sphere. Amitabh Bachchan is one remarkable example—once a bastion of equity in the films of the '70s, he was lifted off the lands of the farmers and their riots, and planted into aristocratic palaces bustling with petty family drama. In her book, Bhutto points fingers at "[this] intersection of two ominous forces: neoliberalism and Hindutva". Neoliberalism shifted Bollywood's focus, she argues, while Hindutva rendered mainstream Bollywood stars politically neutral, unquestioning of Hindu extremism. As proof, we saw mainstream celebrities cheering for war after the attacks on CRPF soldiers in Kashmir in 2019. (Ajay Devgan wrote on Twitter: "Mess with the best, die like the rest".) Nonetheless, Bollywood stars are loved by many across borders. Even, surprisingly, by the indigenous people of Peru.
Peruvians first fell in love with Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker (El Joker). American films were accessible but did not resonate with them the way Bollywood did. These films taught them about values, love, sacrifice and family. These films didn't make them feel inferior. After all, there was something special "about a brown guy making it big" in a very white world. In Peru, Bollywood fan clubs host regular meet-and-greets, dancers take Bollywood dance lessons, some fluently speak Hindi, some add Indian aliases to their actual names, and some are even cured by the winsome charm of SRK.
While Bollywood is her prime focus, Bhutto also profiles K-pop and the Turkish Dizi—two to three hour-long TV shows portraying epic sagas. She writes about their influence on an increasingly globalised world. When in 2017 Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia threw elite individuals into a gilded prison, Turkish Dizi suffered a major loss as it was pulled by a popular television network, proving how entertainment is deeply tied with and impacted by the dynamics of power. But the Turkish Dizi still thrive. From the cosy American homes to run-down refugee camps in Lebanon, people have grown to love Turkish Dizi as much as Bollywood. Meanwhile, Korean pop music continues to challenge America's popular grip on the entertainment industry, as testified recently by the billboard awards.
The incessant rise of this trinity—Bollywood, K-pop, Turkish Dizi—is propelled by the invisible hand of globalisation and its offerings of capitalism and neoliberalism, according to Fatima Bhutto. New Kings of the World is an anthropological and journalistic delight that can be devoured in one sitting. It highlights the hardliner politics that fiddle with our complicated histories and what we consume, and reminds us how this world we inhabit is very much interconnected. Bhutto's work pays witness to an amazing irony, which is that America's very own pop culture machinations are now mobilising other cultures to challenge their singular, global grip. The sands are surely shifting.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org