This Article is From Oct 09, 2019

SRK An Icon Of Cultural Movement Challenging US Monopoly: Fatima Bhutto

SRK An Icon Of Cultural Movement Challenging US Monopoly: Fatima Bhutto

Cover of Fatima Bhutto's book 'NEW KINGS OF THE WORLD: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture'

The old city of Peshawar on the Afghan-Pakistan border was once encircled by sixteen gates. Travelers from the surrounding tribal areas were required to surrender their pistols upon entering the city and abide by an oath to leave before sunset. Kabuli Darwaza, one of the famous sixteen, guards the entrance to Qissa Khawani, Peshawar's legendary bazaar of storytellers. Long ago, Central Asian merchants and Russian spies visited Qissa Khawani to drink cardamom-spiced green tea and trade stories. Today, the bazaar sells everything from underwear to electronics; unboxed mobile phones, their screens covered by thin films of plastic; and old-fashioned electric heaters with bright orange broiler rods. In late summer, as motorcycles roar through the bazaar's narrow lanes, women in long chadors come to buy kharbooza, lifting the yellow melon to smell its perfumed skin. Wires everywhere dangle overhead like a canopy of deadly ivy.

Dilip Kumar, one of India's earliest film stars, whose real name was Muhammad Yusuf Khan, was born in a small gali in Mohalla Khuda Dad near Qissa Khawani bazaar, in what is now Pakistan, where his father, a merchant, sold fruit. In 1937, the All India League of Censorship, a self-designated Hindu cultural police, announced its objective to cleanse "the film industry of all its non-Hindu elements" and many aspiring Muslim stars- including Meena Kumari, who was born Mahjabeen Bano, Madhubala, nee Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi, and Dilip Kumar- changed their names in order to avoid being blackballed.

Raj Kapoor, who lived in a family haveli in nearby Dakhi Nalbandi, would go on to become Indian cinema's greatest screen icon in the 1950s and 60s, adored from the Soviet Union to Latin America. Both Kumar and Kapoor, who knew each other as children, left the cramped alleyways of Qissa Khawani for Bombay before Partition tore undivided India apart in 1947. Though the two actors are fondly remembered in Peshawar, it is not their legends that draw the faithful to Qissa Khawani in the twenty-first century. Today's visitors are enchanted by a more recent luminary. Somewhere between Kumar's and Kapoor's two homes, floating in the winding alleyways of the bazaar, is Lahori Sweets (est. 1925), which sells syrupy jalebi the color of marigolds used in wedding garlands. Outside, a man sits crosslegged on a raised counter and fries brains and diced green chilies on a black tawa. And there, down a dark, tunneled walkway, is Shah Wali Qatal.

"As salam alaikum!" An elderly man with a snowy white beard steps out of his shop when he sees me. He knows why I am here: He knows why everyone walks down the dark tunnel to Shah Wali Qatal. "You know, he even came to my shop once," the old man boasts as he beckons me to follow him. "Even though he was born in India, he's been here twice as a young man." It's Sunday and the passage is quiet. Old tins of canola oil, fraying carpets, and even an old generator have been heaved off to one side, resting against rusted shop shutters. At the very end, in the corner, is a freshly painted mud-brown-and-white house. The door is bolted shut and a lady's name is neatly painted on a wooden plaque. This is the home in which the father of Shah Rukh Khan, the world's most famous film actor, was born.

"Take a picture," the old man cheerfully advises.

Khan, Bollywood's most enduring heart-throb and hero, hasn't been here in decades and isn't likely to visit any time soon, given the political climate.* In a different time, Khan's Peshawar born father was an anti-colonial activist, courting arrest under Mahatma Gandhi's 1942 Quit India Movement against British imperialists and demonstrating alongside the Congress Party and Khudai Khidmatgar, the non-violent Pashtun movement led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, otherwise known as "Frontier Gandhi."

My elderly guide says he has a picture with the actor known as King Khan somewhere. He points to the shop opposite his own, where a slight man with sad eyes sits with his arm slung over the back of a plastic chair. His floor is piled with metal pans and large bartans, big enough for frying industrial amounts of brains and chilies. That's Syed, the old man whispers, he's Khan's cousin.

As I leave Qissa Khawani bazaar, between the live wires strung from balcony to balcony and the jungle green and white Pakistani flags fluttering from recent Independence Day celebrations, I see Khan's face everywhere: rising out of a sea of electric blue paint advertising Pepsi, in a bubble next to a bearded man's face selling leather chappals, his eyes half-closed in painful longing as he presses his forehead against a beautiful Pakistani starlet in a movie poster for a film titled Raees, a trickle of blood running down his cheek.

If you are a candle, the movie poster reads in Romanized Urdu, remember that I am a moth.


Today, Khan, though still little known in the West, is one of the icons of a vast cultural movement emerging from the Global South, including Turkish soap operas and Korean pop music. Truly global in its range and allure, it is the biggest challenge yet to America's monopoly of soft power since the end of World War II.

- *"Go back to Pakistan" is frequently employed by the Indian right wing against their critics. -

This is a book about these new arbiters of mass culture arising from the East. Carefully packaging not-always-secular modernity with traditional values in urbanized settings, they have created a new global pop culture that can be easily consumed, especially by the many millions coming late to the modern world and still negotiating its overwhelming challenges. Though this is a book primarily focused on India, it will also briefly touch upon two other cultural industries at the forefront of the challenge to American soft power: Turkey and South Korea.


America's popular culture was not universally appealing, but for many decades, it was the only global pop culture available. Libertine and flashy, it spoke mainly to a Third World elite. Those who spoke English, possessed the means to travel and study abroad, and were international in their consumerism were particularly glamored by American culture and longed for all things American: their habits, style, knowledge and, most of all, their power. This elite, myself included, may have been the first to be infected, but eventually this worship of American popular culture spread, facilitated by massive migration to urban areas, the rise of the middle class across the Global South, and increased connectivity

American culture was spread not just by the power of its inherent coolness but also by the American defense complex. The American military is the most widely deployed army in world history. Quite like a modern-day British Raj, the American military maintains a massive infrastructure outside its borders with bases across all continents and an enormous machinery to support its presence. At its height, in 1968, more than one million American troops were deployed in fifty-four countries. Today, just under 200,000 personnel are overseas, marking the lowest American troop deployment in six decades. One might argue that as troop numbers decrease, so too does American cultural dominance.

Global affinity for Coca-Cola, blue jeans, and rock and roll was born out of America's military bases. In 1953, there were 326,863 American troops in South Korea alone.* Hollywood movies were wildly popular on the peninsula; in the 1930s, Korea was a bigger market for American movies than Japan or China. Even Hyundai traces its origin story to the bases as the two brothers who set up the car company did mechanical work for the American military. Before the Korean war, the most popular music was "trot," a mix of foxtrot and Japanese songs, which was booted out by something exciting coming out of the Yankee bases: rock music. Young Korean musicians saw the bases as a Mecca. Clubs and music halls would only play trot, the soundtrack of an older, stodgier generation. If you wanted to wear leather jackets and play the electric guitar, you could only do so on the bases. With hundreds of thousands of troops to entertain, the bases became ground zero for aspiring singers across the country. Today, long after the American military occupation of South Korea has ended, the military bases still remain.

Coca-Cola and other pioneering symbols of Americana ultimately made it beyond a rarefied elite class, but though the larger world now saw glimpses of American culture, they never managed to have equal access to it. It is those same forces that promoted American cool-migration, connectivity, urbanization, and American military might-that eventually paved the way for nativist revolts against American cultural hegemony.

- *As of 2017, South Korea "hosts" more American military personnel than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. -

Plummeting American prestige, the belated rediscovery that local cultures are valuable in and of themselves, and the rise of classes with different tastes and backgrounds emerging out of the turbulence of globalization have marginalized the old guard of "Westoxified" elites and created a vast new landscape of cultural power. Villagers uprooted from their homes and cultures and living in the crowded outskirts of big cities found no comfort in Sex and the City or the twangy music of Britney Spears. On the contrary, they resented those who conducted lives in English and appeared rootless and indifferent to their struggles. Indian, Turkish, and even Korean pop culture offer a much better fit for this majority's self-image and aspirations of sovereignty and dignity.


By 1991, America had won the Cold War, and she celebrated with a spectacular display of power. Free market capitalism vanquished communism, and a new world order, one whose axis spun on the unrestrained, unregulated movement of capital, emerged. Neo-liberalism, aided by hyper connectivity and communication technology, radically reengineered global economies and altered society to benefit the rich. Even as inequality deepened, accompanied by protests and violence, it managed to socialize a rising middle class into adherents and worshippers of consumerist capitalism.

The production of culture, sociologist Jyotsna Kapur writes, was second only to war in the neo-liberal economy. It is not coincidental that Mission Impossible's Ethan Hunt, the parachuting hero played on the big screen by Tom Cruise, works for an agency called the Impossible Missions Force, or the IMF. Not much is made of Daddy Warbucks's name, the orphan-saving billionaire in the film version of Annie, but should be. A global generation was reared on icons of American cool, triumphal and unapologetic: Rambo, who defeated the weaklings of Vietnam and Afghanistan; Bruce Springsteen, who made even a backwater like New Jersey seem exciting; and shows like Friends, that educated audiences on how to be white, affluent and carefree in an American century. Previous generations had also been indoctrinated in Americana, and there's a trinity for every era from the 1950s onward: Elvis, blue jeans, and the brooding allure of James Dean; Butch Cassidy, Motown, and miniskirts; Star Wars, disco, and Dallas. It didn't matter which middle-class generation in Asia, Africa or Latin America you were born to, America was the undisputed paragon of modernity, the exemplar of political liberty and cultural supremacy.

This run of American pop culture was uninterrupted for decades, unhindered by any serious global competition. Growing up in 1980s Damascus, there was a period when we couldn't find bananas because isolationist Syria didn't grow the fruit, but we somehow still managed to get a hold of bootleg Tom Selleck films, Madonna albums, and episodes of Cheers from our local video rental shop in Mezzeh. In Pakistan, where I spent my teenage years, satellite television owned by Rupert Murdoch had started in the early 1990s to beam Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful across the subcontinent every night. It didn't matter that it was bad television, it was American television, and we Americaphiles were grateful to receive it.

American pop culture was worshipped by a Third World elite which wanted to modernize so badly that they built big dams, took extortionate loans in order to industrialize, and empowered cabals of bureaucrat-technocrats in their top-heavy governments. But they had no sense of how to reimagine their own selves and were left to mimic the codes and mores of posh Westerners. "We pretended to be free just like them," Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the Iranian novelist, wrote in Gharbzadegi, his searing critique of Westernized Third Worlders. "We sort the world into good and bad along the lines they lay out. We dress like them. We write like them. Night and day are night and day when they confirm it." The East no longer competed with the West, Ahmad lamented in 1978, but merely copied her.

But new cultural industries have flattened the playing field. Today, it is not only American soap operas that families in Karachi gather around their television to watch. The Bold and the Beautiful's loyal audience was an English-speaking, metropolitan elite with access to satellite connections-rare in the 1990s. Its usurper has transcended all those class divisions. When Mera Sultan, the Urdu-dubbed version of Turkey's explosively popular television show Muhteşem Yüzyıl, or Magnificent Century* , aired in the early 2010s, Karachi's streets would empty and shops that stayed open late through the night would pull their shutters halfway down. Netflix aired the first season of its first original Turkish drama, Hakan: Muhafiz, in 2018 to great success. Within a month of streaming, the series had been watched by ten million households across 190 countries, with Brazil, Argentina and Canada among the most enthusiastic viewers. Netflix has commissioned a second series while beginning production on another Turkish original drama, and Amazon Prime is rumored to be hot on their heels.

Kara Sevda won Best Telenovela at the International Emmy Awards in 2017. The year before, NBC aired Game of Silence, a crime drama adapted from the Turkish original, Suskunlar. It only ran for a season, but it was the first American adaptation of a Turkish show, with others, such as Olene Kadar, to follow. Even Fox has gotten in on the game, adapting Runner for their Hispanic audiences. Istanbul-based screenwriter Ece Yörenç, famous for series like Fatmagül'ün Suçu Ne? (What is Fatmagul's Fault?) and Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love), has had meetings with ABC and the producers of House of Cards, who paid to reserve adaptation rights to one of her shows, Kuzey Güney, which they wanted to remake in Chicago. "Before, we couldn't even sell Turkish spaghetti to other countries" Yörenç reminded me. "Not Turkish cars, we couldn't sell anything. And now we have co-producers around the world."

- *Since the show has so many different titles, I will refer to it henceforth by its English name: Magnificent Century. -

By 2008, according to Guinness World Records, The Bold and the Beautiful was watched by a peak of 26.2 million people worldwide. By 2016, Magnificent Century had been seen by upward of 200 million people, though its distributors estimate the actual number of viewers to be more than double that today.

Changing demographics, more than better cable connections, explain this dramatic shift. In 2015, over one billion people left their homes in search of a better life. Only a small percentage, 244 million, migrated abroad. The majority, some 763 million, moved from rural to urban areas within their own countries. Most modern migrants move voluntarily, but displacement, at a post-World War II high, is increasingly an urban phenomenon. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century, annual migration growth has moved at double the speed of population growth.

In 1990, there were only ten "mega cities" which had populations of ten million or more. But by 2030, the number of people living in cities is expected to balloon to 60 percent of the world's total population. Some claim we are already far ahead of that figure. Using geospatial technology, Europe Commission researchers found that, as of 2018, 84 percent of the world already live in urban areas. We transformed from a majority-rural to majority-urban world for the first time around 2008 and have moved at breakneck speed since then. Urban populations grow approximately three times faster than rural populations-between 1.5 and three million people move to cities every week. By 2050, 2.5 billion people will join the world's urban population, 90 percent of whom will be in Asia and Africa.

The psychological disorientation caused by these shifts cannot be underestimated. The journey from tradition to modernity is neither inevitable nor painless; on the contrary, it is accompanied by profound turbulence. People leaving their families and villages are unmoored in the big, soulless city. It is a geography without anchors, full of sexual and material deprivations, injustices, and inequalities. Men and women raised in rural, conservative, familial networks, where marriages are arranged by elders, are often shocked by the depravity of the city. Men find ostensibly liberated city women difficult to take and are humiliated by the alien codes of desire that determine romance in the metropolis. Women, for their part, are vulnerable, deprived of protection and easily preyed upon and exploited by the rich and the powerful.

Who can defeat the city without intimate knowledge of the signs and symbols of the elite? The architecture of power excludes all those who don't speak its language, depriving them of social mobility and agency. Even those urban migrants who triumph, becoming rich and consumerist and happy in love, must fight to reconcile their inherited values of kinship and duty with the new standards of competitive, capitalistic life. These human dilemmas unique to the latecomers to modernity are not addressed by the exuberantly promiscuous ladies of Sex and the City or the sarcastic roommates of Friends but by the new cultural industries who offer temporary, but comforting, resolutions.

How does one thrive in a modern, competitive environment while still retaining traditional values? How does one participate in a dog-eat-dog world without sacrificing one's identity, family, or culture? And what space is there for narratives of struggle and displacement in an ever-expanding terrain devoted to easy celebrity, riches, and supremacy? These questions are no longer satisfactorily answered by American or Western pop culture.

To be American is no longer to belong to a vaunted, cultural elite. After the Trump White House used Game of Thrones imagery to announce renewed sanctions on Iran-"Sanctions are Coming"-Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, dismissed the American decision by choosing to focus on America's declining cultural, rather than military, cache. "The United States is much weaker today than it was forty years ago," Khamenei told a gathered crowd in Tehran, "Most of the world's politicians and global affairs analysts believe that the United State's soft power is worn out. It's been destroyed."

As the world struggles with the tensions of globalization- the shock waves of neo-liberal economic adjustments, the ferocious speed at which information travels, and the turbulence caused by urbanization and mass migration from villages to the cities-American pop culture seems less and less reflective of this new, uncertain present. A poor young woman in Guatemala has a much harder time relating to the millennials in Girls than she does with Bihter, the protagonist of Aşk-ı Memnu, the popular Turkish soap opera about a young Istanbul woman who marries a much older, wealthy man as she reels from the death of her father and her family's insolvency.

America's cinematic products, redolent or at least suggestive of Western fancies, turn out to have left millions outside a very distinct and peculiar dream of near-pornographic materialism. Audiences from Syria to Sudan can hardly identify with, let alone aspire to, Hollywood's white fantasies of power, wealth, and sex. Meanwhile, the travails and modest glories of struggling Turkish heroines are universally accessible. All that's been proven between 1991's Desert Storm and 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom is that there is nothing enduring about American power.

Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from 'NEW KINGS OF THE WORLD: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture' by Fatima Bhutto. Order your copy here.

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