Fatima Bhutto on the New Kings of Pop Culture: Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop
This Week on Underreported with Nicholas Lemann From
Columbia Global Reports
From the worldwide rise of populism and medical tourism, to Chinese smartphones and Nigerian Cinema—each season on Underreported with Nicholas Lemann we’ll travel to different places and bring you the stories that you aren’t already hearing about, connecting them to the current news at every turn. On this show, we’ll continue the conversations from our books with the journalists who know these stories best.
On this episode, acclaimed Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto joins the show. Her most recent book, New Kings of the World, examines the new arbiters of mass culture―India’s Bollywood films, Turkey’s soap operas (or dizi), and South Korea’s pop music.
From the episode:
Nicholas Lemann: How much of this change is about the extent to which people around the world find the US admirable and cool and so on, and how much is about just the availability of content that wasn’t there before?
Fatima Bhutto: Well, I think American culture has always been pretty widely available, and it continues to be widely available. I think the cool factor has declined. And I think that soft power, as we know, in order to work, we have to see the source of that power to be credible. So, when a country is making films about freedom and its great values and goals, we have to see those goals and values practiced. I think that even when American power has been brutal, it’s always had a sophistication to it. That’s how Michelle Obama could present essentially a film about torture, an Oscar, live from White House telecast. And it’s still to be acceptable because there was a nuance and a sheen there that we all believed in. I really find it hard to imagine Melania Trump doing the same today and for it to come off in the same way.
Nicholas Lemann: When was the change, in terms of the reputation of the US? Was it the Iraq war? Was it the financial crisis?
Fatima Bhutto: I think it starts to decline after the Iraq war. It starts to go down. But it’s less a case that America does something wrong with pop culture and more the case that other people start doing it very right. You have, for example, dizi. They’ve been making dramas in Turkey since the 70s. But they start to be very high value, very high production only in the last fifteen years, really. And then they start to travel, and when they hit one place, that kind of mushrooms and expands and just goes on and on and on and on. So, it’s more a case of them being better at it than the Americans failing.
Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and grew up between Syria and Pakistan. She is the author of five previous books of fiction and nonfiction. Her debut novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, was long listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the memoir about her father’s life and assassination, Songs of Blood and Sword, was published to acclaim. Her most recent novel is The Runaways.