Fatima Bhutto Looks East for Culture

Fatima Bhutto (Naina Hussain)

Fatima Bhutto recounts a particular memory from the time she spent with the Kalasha, one of Pakistan’s smallest indigenous ethnic groups who number about 4,000, one that she can’t quite forget. The Kalasha practice an ancient animistic form of Hinduism and migrated to Pakistan from a “distant place in South Asia.” Bhutto recalls seeing a poster of Shah Rukh Khan hanging in an otherwise bare community center. In a mountainous village with little running water and no electricity, she couldn’t escape the Bollywood star that adorned the walls of this seemingly culturally removed community.

The poster appeared almost iconographic, and Khan seemed to “transcend electricity,” Bhutto joked. But, the thing is, she’s not really joking. Mainly because Bhutto has been thinking a lot about culture lately.

Bhutto is the daughter of the late Pakistani politician Murtaza Bhutto. The Bhutto mantle carries a certain dynastic weight, whether it be her father, her grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or her aunt Benazir Bhutto (both former prime ministers of Pakistan). Yet, with her father in exile during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, Bhutto spent most of her early life in relative anonymity abroad, born in Afghanistan, and raised during her early childhood in Damascus. 

Growing up, Bhutto was encouraged to interrogate culture. Her father was obsessed with it. As a child, he would piece together his own magazines, inspired by Che Guevara’s revolutionary thinking, and circulate them among friends. 

“I got tired of this idea that the center of culture was coming from here,” she said, while gesturing around the coffee-shop-cum-bookstore in Washington, D.C., where she is due to speak. Bhutto’s “here” is the U.S., and the West, more widely. This fatigue became the catalyst for her latest book, New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop.

Bhutto’s desire to constantly question the status quo has made her a scrupulous field reporter. Throughout the book, she does her due diligence, almost to silence any critics that might accuse her of overly academic, ivory-tower hypothesizing.

Bhutto uses the book to explore how these cultural forms have infiltrated unexpected corners of the world, and steadily become bastions in certain countries. Unlike the Cold War era, when Bollywood grew popular in the Soviet Union out of cultural diplomacy, the growth of these forms isn’t a choice. Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop fill gaps that Western pop culture can’t, and have therefore grown into behemoths. 

This is a good thing, asserts Bhutto, to decentralize power from Western pop culture.

Dizi are the high-budget, sweeping epics of Turkish television, similar to the production quality of period dramas like Downton Abbey or The Crown. They distance themselves from the term ‘soap opera.’ Instead, they have grandiose themes, often juxtaposing the desire for traditional values against the moral corruption of the modern world. According to Bhutto, they consider themselves a “genre in progress.” The form is a cosmic success. One particular show, Magnificent Century, based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, claimed it had over 200 million views last year.

“If you take away the sound in a Dizi, you could be anywhere,” Bhutto pointed out. All of that is purposeful and appealing, according to Bhutto. “It means Dizi can be enjoyed in Peru or in Palestine.” Or, perhaps, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan, where the Kalasha reside.

Bhutto nudges the reader toward the idea that the power of these institutions lies in their ability to travel across countries and generations seamlessly. She is often asked whether these are “anti-capitalist art forms,” but is quick to point out that their creators have commercial interests.

K-Pop group BTS was the first Korean band to top the global Billboard 200 chart in 2018. K-Pop doesn’t hide how manufactured it is, said Bhutto, describing for me its “ruthless studio incubation” system for its idols, notorious for its stringent diet and exercise regimens. Yet, K-Pop extols the relentless work ethic it takes to produce a cultural phenomenon adored by grandparents and Gen Zs alike — globally. Bhutto adds that Hollywood is also a hotbed for manufactured stars and content, but “they’re just better at hiding the strings,” she said.

Sacrifice, for Bhutto, is what makes many of the superstars at the heart of industries like Bollywood and K-Pop so beloved. In New Kings of the World, Bhutto spends time shadowing and interviewing Shah Rukh Khan in Dubai between film shoots. She becomes a Bollywood embed, accompanying him to press junkets and spending mornings sharing breakfast in his suite at the Palazzo Versace. Her time with him serves as both a play-by-play of an actor at work and an anthropological case study.

“He was incredibly generous,” Bhutto said of Khan, adding that generosity is both his blessing and his curse. “His family say they don’t want to go out for dinner with him because of how often he’s stopped for pictures and autographs,” Bhutto told me. Bhutto was taken aback by just how unfazed and chronically dedicated Khan was to his fans. Of course, Khan also needs to maintain his hard-earned stardom. “He is part of the South Asian imagination and feels this need to keep that up,” she said. Khan is the conduit through which Bhutto shows the ever-changing landscape of Bollywood. Furtive glances have been replaced with more frequent kissing on-screen, while impromptu musical numbers have been stripped back. 

Bhutto brings up her father often. One audience member in the D.C. coffee shop shares an uninvited anecdote about her father. Bhutto is receptive and accepts it cordially. It seems that she has trained herself to share her father’s legacy and memory with many. 

Bhutto’s father was a Pakistani politician, the son of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and brother to Benazir Bhutto. He was shot dead in a police encounter in Karachi in 1996, thought to have been orchestrated by Benazir Bhutto’s husband.

Bhutto has made it abundantly clear that she believes that her father died at the hands of his own sister and brother-in-law. Bhutto has published seven books, from her first novel Whispers of the Desert, written in 1998 at the age of 15, to her widely discussed last work of non-fiction, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir, where she criticizes her late aunt, who was also assassinated. 

One attendee is adamant to know when Bhutto is running for office in Pakistan. “I don’t have any plans to enter politics,” she replied sympathetically. Bhutto explained that, for her, being adjacent to politics has always been a more effective way of bringing about change and holding power to account. As a teenager, she would often hold court with her father to talk about issues she was passionate about, issues he should include in his agenda. 

“I was allowed to engage as an adult even when I wasn’t one,” she said. Bhutto thinks back to how she urged him to include AIDS awareness and reproductive rights on his agenda. As AIDS spread at an alarming rate in Pakistan, the administration designated a World AIDS Day in 2017. “I always had the right to curiosity, and it made me realize the world is there to be questioned.”

She pulls out a banana from her capacious tote bag, and asks if it would be ok to snack while chatting. “I’m so jet-lagged,” she said. “I’m living all over the place with this book.” She peels back the banana skin, scattered with bruises, to reveal the curiously unscathed flesh as she details her coping mechanisms in dealing with her father’s death. “As long as I’m here, I feel my father is here,” she explained. “If I want to tell my father something, I tell my father something.” For Bhutto, grief evolves. “You learn to think of grief, as Joan Didion says, ‘magically.’”

While Bhutto grew up in exile in Syria, she is a product of the American and British school systems, and holds degrees from both Columbia University and the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. Bhutto looks East, both for culture and for closure.

“This western understanding of closure is particularly disturbing because, of course, there is no such thing as closure,” she said. Whether it’s Bollywood, K-Pop, or Dizi, some cultural forms find their way across the world, not intentionally, but out of need.

Shrai Popat is a writer and producer from London. He writes about the arts, culture, and social justice issues. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works as a video journalist at BBC.

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