When it comes to culture wars, the past century was undoubtedly an American century. Coming victorious out of the ruins of World War II, with its economy experiencing momentous growth and influence and power, America was positioned as the global emblem of progress, liberty and modernity. This chimera was largely achieved through the might of American culture, with Hollywood films, television shows, and music that spread far and wide across the world.
Steve McQueen bested the Nazis in The Great Escape, whose film adaptation took notable liberties from the book – such as including Americans among the escapees of the German POW camp; Sylvester Stallone as Rambo single-handedly fought off and defeated a roster of American enemies, civilizing the weaklings of Vietnam, and taught the Soviets a good lesson by thrashing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the greatest grossing sports movie for nearly two decades.
Today, however, American soft power faces serious challenges from a slew of Asian countries, increasingly recognized as cultural hegemons themselves. America’s credibility in the world has taken a serious hit, limiting the persuasive effect of its films. Migration and urbanisation have had profound consequences too. 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. Crammed into urban areas with no support, the many millions coming late to the modern world have found themselves unmoored. The promise of globalisation has been exposed as a lie – not all boats were lifted with the rising tide, rather, the majority of the world is struggling not to drown while only the one percent floats comfortably. Those abandoned by capitalism and globalization have turned their loyalties away from Hollywood. The pop culture being produced out of India, Turkey and South Korea – to say nothing of China, which is a separate story altogether – exposes the twentieth century Western cultural tsunami as receding and revealing the seashore. Its tide has been broken.
South Korean Kpop music videos make up more than half of YouTube’s most watched videos of all time (with 80% of the views coming from outside the Asian peninsula nation) and one of Turkey’s most popular dizi, or television drama, Magnificent Century, has been watched by upwards of 500 million people globally. For comparison, the Guinness World Book of Records estimates that at its height, The Bold and The Beautiful had been seen by a peak of 26 million people around the world. Tuba Büyüküstün, one of Turkey’s most popular stars of Asi and Kara Para Ask – she was even awarded an acting prize by the Vatican in 2015 – says Turkey’s dizi production is important because “we have values but American TV or films doesn’t have anything to do with values or even cultural values.”
Bollywood produces more films than anyone in the world, grows at an astronomical 11.5% and sells more tickets at the box office than Hollywood could dream of. Its muscularity is not limited to the arts, either. After Pakistan and India – two nuclear armed powers – faced off in February 2019, it was Bollywood that beat the war drums for India. Star after star took to Twitter to cheer on their air forces and hashtag patriotic slogans alongside flag emojis. Priyanka Chopra, building a career stateside as a women’s empowerment role model, was unable to account for her online jingoism when recently questioned at Beautycon 2019. But the biggest promoters of pop cultural politics – and movie metaphors – might be the two leaders of the subcontinent.
Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing Prime Minister, campaigned for the May 2019 elections by promising his electorate that the standoff with Pakistan in February was just “the trailer” with the “full movie to come.” He is the subject of a fawning movie biopic – which its makers attempted to release before the Indian elections – and numerous, celebratory mini- series. On the Prime Minister’s birthday, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of classic Bollywood films such as Devdas, marked the occasion by announcing that he too would be making a Modi movie. Few but fans of the hardline government cheered the news.
Most recently, at the UN’s General Assembly in September, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan decried the Indian communications blackout and two-month long curfew of Kashmir, warning that its neighbor was building a case for yet another war with Pakistan over the disputed territory. “We’ve been brought up with films, Western films,” Prime Minister Khan orated. “This good decent guy doesn’t get justice, he decides to pick up a gun and start seeking justice. There was a film made in New York, famous film named Death Wish, this guy gets mugged and his wife gets killed or something and he can’t get justice. He picks up a gun and goes around shooting muggers and the whole cinema cheers him on.” The power of popular culture was very much on PM Khan’s mind and he concluded his trip to the UN by announcing that Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia would be banding together to start a television channel aimed at combating Islamophobia.
Though in his metaphor, it is unclear who is supposed to be Charles Bronson, pushed to the limits of human decency, his ultimate point is clear: politics is no longer fought through ballot boxes alone. The coming battlefield will be cultural, too.