“The Bold and the Beautiful,” a staple of American daytime television for more than 30 years, peaked in its worldwide viewership at 26.2 million in 2008. A few years later, “Magnificent Century,” a Turkish drama, was broadcast to 200million people. That wide gulf in audience is one of the focuses of the book “New Kings of the World,” about how American soft power is being eclipsed around the globe.
The author, Fatima Bhutto, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, raised in Damascus, Syria, and educated in New York and London. She now works as a novelist and journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. Ms. Bhutto racked up tens of thousands of frequent-flier miles while exploring popular culture emerging from the East.
During a recent visit to The New York Times newsroom, she gave us a different perspective on race and culture, one that we want to share with you. I spoke with her, and these are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Share with us what your cultural diet was like.
Growing up in Damascus in the 1980s, my father would get James Bond films on VHS, we’d have Motown music playing in the car, and I’d watch half an hour of nonverbal Soviet cartoons that state TV would show in the evenings.
I am very much a child of American culture but at the same time, I also had access to plenty of non-American cultural products. As a teenager in Pakistan, I listed to Snoop Dogg and American hip-hop, but also to the Pakistani bands Junoon and Strings, as well as Rai music from Algeria and Egyptian pop.
American culture was always the glitziest, but it wasn’t always the most thoughtful.
The lure of American soft power — Coca-Cola, jazz, jeans, rock ’n’ roll and, of course, Hollywood — has historically been strong and backed by the government. How did American military supremacy help export this cultural power?
The American military is the most widely deployed army in history, and it 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 54 countries. They brought their cultures with them, their films, their music, their tastes and their products. And they also were a huge presence that required entertainment, so they became places where musicians and artists would find welcome ground.
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.
When did the pivot away from Hollywood begin to occur? Why was there a backlash?
There isn’t one moment we can point to, rather it’s a perfect storm of factors including 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, migration and urbanization.
Describe the effect of those trends.
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. Between 1.5 million and 3 million people move to cities every week. The psychological disorientation caused by these shifts is profound.
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. Add to that the betrayal of globalization’s promise: that the world would be lifted on a tide of wealth, opportunity and access.
But hundreds of millions of people who uprooted their life in order to become captains of this new world have found no wealth, no opportunity and no access. Rather, the opposite.
How does Hollywood speak to the world’s unmoored and displaced? What does “Hustlers” say to a woman who has left her family’s village in El Salvador to move to the turbulent, violent city? What does “Avengers: Endgame” say to Afghan refugees, fighting to survive, in this new world? Nothing. It doesn’t speak to them at all.
What makes an Indian film, a Turkish television drama or a Korean pop song have more universal appeal than a piece of American work?
They look modern and appealing in the same way that American film, TV or music looks. But uniquely, these are all cultural products set firmly in the realm of values. They are not concerned with which billionaire son inherits his father’s empire, but rather focus on ordinary people struggling to live lives of dignity with the force of the world against them.
They are concerned with principles, with how one defeats temptation, greed, and avoids dishonor. So for the most part, there is less violence; there’s no nudity; romantic relations are portrayed very chastely; and there’s no swearing.
You can listen to a K-pop song with your grandmother in the room, no lyrics have to be beeped out. You can watch a Turkish drama, or dizi as they’re called, with your entire family.
Are all these cultural movements tied to their government and plays at soft power as well?
These industries have been producing culture for decades and, yes, they are all weapons of soft power, some more than others. K-pop is born out of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. South Korea was badly hit, and couldn’t rebuild their economy by relying on the heavy industries of Samsung and Hyundai as they had done in the past. President Kim Dae-jung decided to focus on pop culture. It required no organizational infrastructure — only talent, time, and training.
Turkey first sold dizi to outside markets in the 1980s and have long produced dramas. Dizi are often adapted from Turkish literary classics and are sweeping epics that run over two hours per episode. The government has endorsed dizi, but there seems to be a lot of independence. The soft power effect is achieved regardless of whether the state had a hand in production.
Bollywood’s films of the 1950s followed the path of India’s newly independent future, encapsulating ideas of romantic nationalism, social justice and liberty. But now the Bollywood hero lives in London, not in the village, and has no interest in social justice. He wears designer clothes and drives a Ferrari, though he still abides by traditional morality and is unquestioning of the nation. Bollywood’s values today are attached to darker political projects reflecting the mood of the government.
The scale of these industries is astonishing. Tell us about their output and audience.
“Magnificent Century,” set during the 16th-century reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, had been seen by 200 million people, though distributors in Istanbul told me the actual number of viewers is closer to 500 million people today.
India produces between 1,500 and 2,000 films a year — more than any country in the world, and in over 20 languages. The number of cinema tickets sold is the highest national total on the planet; in 2012, India sold 2.6 billion tickets compared with Hollywood’s 1.36 billion.
K-pop is a $5 billion-dollar-a-year industry. In 2016, K-pop music videos were watched 24 billion times on YouTube, with 80 percent of the views coming from outside South Korea. In YouTube’s top ten list of videos with the largest number of views in 24 hours, six belong to K-pop bands. YouTube didn’t even know videos could be watched over one billion times until Psy’s “Gangnam Style” famously broke their counter.
Is K-Pop an authentic expression of Korean culture? And what is this “glocalization” you write about?
“Glocalization” is the ultimate bait and switch. It’s the secret sauce of K-pop, which relies on taking established Western pop music and tempos and then “localizing” it by speeding it up. That elevated speed is what makes K-pop music so dance-y and so infectious. K-pop is an industry with its eye finely tuned to the market. It’s not concerned with authenticity. But it does is take an established pop formula and do something frantic and innovative with it that is distinctly Korean.
You went to see where all this culture was produced, and also where it was consumed around the world. What are the most surprising places these movements have conquered?
By far, the most surprising discovery was to find an entire subculture of Bollywood fans in Peru. They are all indigenous Peruvians, people who migrated into Lima from the highlands, and they don’t speak English but know all the Hindi/Urdu lyrics to Bollywood songs and are immersed in the culture of the films.
Campo de Marte is a park in downtown Lima that is filled with people every Sunday dancing to Bollywood music. Women turn shawls into saris and stick sequins on their foreheads as bindis. It’s a cinema that makes them feel seen; they see their struggles and their dreams mirrored in the story lines.
You’ve spent hundreds of hours on “research.” Give those of us who know little about these genres your best recommendations.
I’d have to say “Cukur” is definitely the dizi to watch; it’s “The Godfather,” but set in an Istanbul ghetto. “Gully Boy” is the best Bollywood film I’ve seen in years because it recalls the best of old Bollywood — turning the gaze to those on the periphery of society. I have a K-pop playlist of top hits I created, which I’m happy to share but probably shouldn’t.
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