New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi and K-pop: Fatima Bhutto

by Meghna Gupta

On the surface, February 2020 seemed to be a pivotal moment when headlines heralded the first foreign film to win the Oscars. Parasite, a Korean family drama, unfolding via an intense mix of genres, won Best Picture. When Vulture interviewed the director Bong-Joon Ho asking him what he thought about the Oscars - he responded by saying “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal...The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” Underneath the dry wit and deflection, there’s a disarmingly secure dismissal of Hollywood being the indisputable pinnacle of mainstream film. Bong’s cheery dismissal of Hollywood is echoed by several audiences across the world, who also couldn’t care less about the Oscars. Fatima Bhutto’s new book, New Kings of the World offers fascinating and illuminating insights into the shifts taking place in front of our eyeballs and ears.

New Kings of The World book jacket

New Kings of the World looks at the powerful, head-spinning reach of cultural movements that exist completely outside the West. Fatima Bhutto explores the farthest reaches of Bollywood, Dizi (Turkish episodic stories), and K-Pop. She finds out who is hungry for them and what these forms represent and provide. What makes this pop culture potentially more desirable than the superior technology and ensuing visual novelty offered by Hollywood? From a Western point of view, language has often been cited as one of the main barriers faced by English speaking audiences, apparently keeping us from watching ‘foreign’ films. Bhutto prises open what lies beyond this surface level reasoning - by taking us on a highly enjoyable tour through these forms, and their ardent, far flung fan bases.

Fatima encountered the popular phenomenon ‘Dizi’ via her hometown Karachi in 2010. She tells us how streets would empty and bustling markets slow business to watch each three-hour episode of these sweeping epics adapted from Turkish literary classics. Screenwriters, producers and professors she meets in Istanbul assert strongly that the ‘Dizi’ is its own genre, insisting it is not a soap opera. The most watched of them is Magnificent Century - about a woman’s journey from slavery to becoming the queen of empire, following the love affair between a captive Ukrainian concubine - Hurrem and the emperor, Sultan Suleyman. Along with stylistic differences, they have a narrative structure that works very differently to what Hollywood and European cinema are currently exploring.

“Eset, (a screenwriter) who worked on... Magnificent Century, recounts the narrative themes that Dizi are usually loyal to:

• You can’t put a gun in your hero’s hand.
• The centre of any drama is the family.
• An outsider will always journey into a socio-economic setting that is the polar opposite of their own, e.g. moving from a village to the city.
• The heart-throb has had his heart broken and is tragically closed to love.
• Nothing beats a love triangle.

“Dizi are built, Eset insists, on the altar of “communal yearning”, both for the audience and the characters. “We want to see the good guy with the good girl, but, dammit, life is bad and there are bad characters around.”

Arguably Hollywood has the same offering - but with more sex and violence. What Bhutto crucially points out is that these are narratives that centre around family, which the West has largely departed from. From Eset’s screenwriting guidelines, the story landscape for Dizi feels more relational than the traditional ‘hero’s journey’ that Hollywood screenwriting built its foundations on. The sense of ‘another’ is strongly present in these narrative structures - and the pain and pleasure of navigating social interactions inform the drama above blood and sweat action, and the focused self-reliance of a Western protagonist. It’s not always what the protagonist achieves, or their conviction, or their resilient agency - but how they move through the social landscape and their response to emotional dilemmas that resonates as guidance for life. In short, many of these stories are rarely focused on a clear win or a loss as the end point.

There’s less on-screen sex, replaced instead by more on-screen romance. “Ergenç (who plays the blue-eyed Sultan in Magnificent Century) feels that the runaway success of the Dizi is partly due to the fact that American TV is entertaining, but not moving. “They don’t touch the feelings that make us human,” he tells me, nursing a cold cup of coffee, when we meet in Istanbul. Turkey’s gaze was once keenly turned to the West, studying its films and television for clues about how to behave in a modern, fast-paced world, but today, American shows offer little guidance.”

Bhutto explores why the appeal of this is so strong. In Lebanon, the author meets a 23-yr old Syrian woman Fatima, in a refugee camp - whose favourite Dizi Noor and Muhannad chart cross-class love stories: “I like that they’re long, that they never end... I feel like I live with them. Before the war we had shows that used to talk about love...but afterward it was only shows about cheating, about a girl who takes her friend’s lover.” She discloses that in the camp, the aftermath of the war led to conflict between couples, never with any solutions, which troubled her. Whilst the emotional needs in refugee camps might be seen as different to people who experience less trauma - the spread of audiences for Dizi reflect the huge appetite for the hope romance offers. Turkish TV dramas are now watched by more than 400 million people in more than 140 countries (1). Today Chile is the largest consumer of Dizi in terms of number of shows sold, while Mexico followed by Argentina pay the most to buy them.

Meanwhile in Peru, there’s been a love affair audiences in Lima have had with Indian films since the 1950s. Bhutto reveals that this consumption of culture happened well before India and Peru had diplomatic relations in 1963. Importantly, the desire for these films come from the Andean belt, and not the ‘payeses blancos’, in other words, Peruvians who have Caucasian heritage. Critically, Bhutto goes beyond the skin-deep analysis of the appeal in seeing a darker actor on screen in a formerly colonised country. She charts a fascinating history of the way the Peruvian audiences have connected to changing elements of Bollywood, from the 1970s films, that focused on socialism and the underdog, to its more recent brash, blingy, neoliberal incarnations.

Professor Ricardo Beodya, Peru’s most eminent film critic tells her “Madre India (Mother India) was screened especially during Mother’s Day as well as Holy Week. You can understand Mother’s Day - but what’s interesting is that during Semana Santa here, people feel you don’t go to the movies to have a good time, but to suffer, to feel empathy with the suffering of Christ. When Bhutto interviews Peru’s (and arguably the world’s) favourite Bollywood star - Shah Rukh Khan he says. “Sacrifice is a big part of our culture. We’re taught to sacrifice from childhood, in our own religion - in all the religions of South Asia - you’ll only be told stories as you grow up of how heroes gave up things achieve things for themselves, but mostly for others….In Hollywood obstacles can be personal and therefore overcome, but in India your sacrifices are for others. So if I did not marry in a film the girl I love, it would be because I want her to marry the elder brother in the family because he’s of the right age. Now if you were to see this in the context of the West, there’s nothing like age, stage or even brotherhood of that level.” I would argue that sacrifice is a universal element to stories from both hemispheres. Most protagonists in Hollywood films transform from pursuing a selfish goal to a selfless goal - where they act in the greater good rather than just for themselves. The nuanced difference may lie somewhere in the importance given to the quest being fulfilled by the sacrifice. Many Dizi and Bollywood films value the sacrifice less for its efficacy - and more as a symbol of love expressed by it, futile or not.

Shah Rukh Khan in still from Jab Tak Hai Jaan

Along with this lens on sadness, Bollywood offers a different, more collectively shared connect with joy. Bhutto takes us to rival dance clubs in Lima, who perfect Bollywood song-and-dance routines, and spend lavishly on their costumes. It’s clear that the form provides something that can be shared, adapted, reinvented and has a life beyond the screen. The dance interest seems to involve younger viewers between 18 and 28 (2), but the fans span all ages. Misael, a 35 yr old Limeno who runs an online Indian cinema portal states in Bhutto’s book that “(Peruvians) were moved by the way SRK ‘imparts a love for the family’ in his films. He touches our souls and it was their love for the Bollywood star that had cured many of their members (portal users) of ‘vices’ and helped them overcome tragedy.

Critically Bhutto identifies the more difficult, oppressive connect with patriarchy and conservatism in what these narrative forms also offer. Bhutto interviews one of Peru’s leading film critics - Ricardo Bedoya, who touches on Peru’s ‘guilty machismo’ which he feels stems from its strict Catholic culture, that accounts for some of its attraction to Bollywood. Despite the huge presence of billboards denouncing machismo in Peru, Bedoya feels a deep entrenchment reflected in Latin American cinema. He feels in these films ‘a woman is born to sacrifice herself for sadness’, unlike in Hollywood, where a scorned or wronged woman is able to seek revenge. “There’s a movie called The Abandoned by Emilio Fernandez, and this is the archetypal movie about women, which remains till today: A woman who is about to be happy is betrayed and then begins her fall, which includes extreme poverty, prostitution, suffering and sacrifice - because of a man who is her son. She loses her life, but she saves her son.” Bhutto, then alerts us to Peru, Turkey and India all having extreme gender violence and inequality in common.

In the Dizi - Fatmagul, a young woman is gangraped and has to marry her rapist – an old-fashioned concept of justice. “The Dizi addressed a woman’s place in society while burdening her with every conceivable problem she might face… the weight of shame, enduring a forced marriage, tense familial relations, struggling against the suffocating power of the rich.” “Bhutto gives us facts, context and interview about the place and realities for women in these landscapes but stops short of judgment, allowing us to make up our minds about whether this is empowerment or an insidious velvet-gloved chauvinism at play.

Outside of Bhutto’s book, Turkish feminists like Esra Gedik, a professor of sociology sees the Dizi as “based on the romanticization of violence ... of no means yes. It affects both Turkish men and women. They take these characters as role models” (3) Gedik is very vocal in saying that the Dizi perpetuates existing forms of sexism in the society, and echoes other Turkish feminists who feel that a good woman in these stories is one who is a caregiver dependent on a man. I am intrigued as to why Bhutto doesn’t explore the dissonances in these stories for their audiences in much depth, or their responses to patriarchal attitudes. She leaves the question open as she seems to loosely ascribe this attitude to a class issue - describing the audience as mostly individuals who move from rural to urban spaces, coming from far more traditional, conservative backgrounds.

However Bhutto is unambivalent in her view that these non-Western storytelling forms come with strong political agendas. She’s no stranger herself to power and its machinations. Bhutto comes from one of Pakistan’s most important political families - the niece of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani Prime Minister, and is forever asked why she hasn’t entered politics. In this slender volume, she covers Indian cinema in more detail than either Dizi or K-pop. She critically charts the evolution within the form from its more socialist stories to its current lean towards religious or overtly patriotic stories - illustrating clearly how narratives have evolved with the ruling power. With fascinating detail, she looks at Modi’s collusion with Bollywood to engage in overt nation-building, and Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan’s increasingly moneyed, apolitical roles on screen. “There are no epics devoted to the struggles of Dalits, the lowest, ‘untouchable’ castes of his 90-plus films, Shah Rukh Khan has played only 6 Muslim characters.” Her analysis of this jingoistic, chauvinistic turn importantly pulls back the curtain on popular culture as soft power. She points out the spread of Hollywood films are inextricably linked to the US military complex and presence, outlining Western dominance, before taking us on a tour of the empire-building mirrored in the spread of Indian, Turkish and Korean culture.

The ‘New Kings’ are not innocently benign forces, seemingly offering emotional fulfillment for audiences who don’t see themselves represented in Hollywood. They are a template for a way of life centring around the family group as much as the stories of heroism in Hollywood (and the UK) are a defence of (neo)liberal individualism. With Parasite having crossed the threshold to Hollywood, much has been said in the Western media about the influences and the wild mix of genres this film has involved: “Parasite is more Shakespearean than Hitchockian – a tale of two families from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, told with the trademark genre-fluidity that has seen Bong’s back catalogue slip seamlessly from murder mystery, via monster movie, to dystopian future-fantasy and beyond.’(4) It’s indisputable that Bong-Joon Ho’s references would have come from Western drama, given its dominance. However, less is said about the fact that the film is closer to the narrative themes Turkish screenwriter Eset lays out for Dizi: Parasite centres around the family unit, vitally crossing class divides, and the violence is underpinned by sacrifice and sadness, closer to Bollywood. After reading Bhutto’s book, one might see an alternative ‘universal’ involved in the emotional resonance of stories - a layer that lives even further beneath the power games pulling the strings on culture.

About the Author:

Meghna Gupta is is a director whose work shifts between Britain and South Asia. After studying undergraduate Film and Video at LCC, she went onto UCL to study a masters in Anthropology. She has since worked in broadcast for Al Jazeera, Channel 4 and BBC, collaborated with academic research projects to make public engagement film, and made films for the festival circuit that have won over 35 awards. Her debut film Unravel, made in collaboration with Dr. Lucy Norris, was an exploration of the turning the Western gaze - looking at the garment trade from the point of view of Indian textile recyclers.

New Kings of The World: Bollywood, Dizi and K-Pop by Fatima Bhutto, is published by Columbia Global Reports, and available here

1 BBC News: An Unlikely Love Story: Why do South Americans love Turkish TV -