Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Art and propaganda: Reclaim narratives

Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Cinema, with its immense reach and persuasive capabilities, has often served as a potent weapon for dominant groups to reinforce their ideologies and influence public opinion. While in India, since 2014, the government’s influence over the film industry has become increasingly apparent. Films are often carefully crafted to advance narratives that align with the ruling party’s agenda, reinforcing hate-laden ideologies while marginalising minorities, particularly Muslims. The most recent of all being The Kerala story. This film depicts a secret scheme taking place in Kerala, where innocent women are being forcefully converted to Islam and sent to ISIS. The director claims that this has been done to around 32,000 girls. The film achieved what it intended to achieve i.e. invoking blatant and deep-seated animosity towards Muslims by portraying them negatively. This was clear from the reaction recorded by journalists of the people coming back after watching the film. 

The intersection of art and propaganda has been a potent force throughout history, serving as a tool for dominant in-groups to shape narratives and marginalised minorities. If we recall the words of Adrienne Rich saying that art would mean nothing if it decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. According to Rich, if art serves only to adorn and entertain those in power without challenging or questioning their authority, its true potential is undermined and compromised. Art should be a vehicle for critique, resistance, and transformation. Art has the capacity to challenge societal norms, expose injustices, and give voice to marginalised communities. When art embraces this role, it becomes a powerful tool for social change and liberation. But throughout history, we have seen the manipulation of art as a means of controlling public opinion and often it has been used to develop harmful narratives. Art, including cinema, has the potential to elicit powerful emotional responses and shape public opinion. Dominant in-groups have exploited this potential to propagate their ideologies and maintain control over society. In Nazi Germany, for example, the regime effectively employed cinema as a medium of propaganda to consolidate power. Films like Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” showcased Adolf Hitler’s charismatic leadership, glorified the Nazi Party and disseminated nationalistic ideals.

These films were carefully crafted to evoke emotional responses, solidify group identity, and marginalise perceived outgroups, such as Jews, by presenting them as threats to the nation. Art, through its ability to construct narratives, has been utilised to establish dominant historical and nationalistic myths. Drawing from the insights provided by books such as David Welch‘s “Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945”, it becomes evident that cinema has been a particularly influential medium in propagating such narratives. By critically examining historical and global examples, we can understand the pervasive. 

When we—as marginalised communities—recognise the patterns of constant dehumanisation of our characters through cinema then we also have to acknowledge that the humanisation of our characters cannot be rested on others but only ourselves. While I was reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s book of essays “They can’t kill us until they kill us” I found a quote which I later dog-eared:

“The truth is, if we don’t write our own stories, there is someone else waiting to do it for us. And those people, waiting with their pens, often don’t look like we do and don’t have our best interests in mind.”

Abdurraqib, as a Black American Muslim, highlights the importance of marginalised communities and individuals taking control of their own narratives. It emphasises that if people from these communities do not actively write and share their own stories, there will always be others who will step in and shape those narratives on their behalf. However, these external storytellers may not have the same background, experiences, or perspectives, and as a result, they may not accurately represent the lived realities and best interests of the marginalised individuals. They’ll perpetuate harmful narratives or reinforce existing power imbalances. These underrepresented communities need to actively participate in creating and sharing their own narratives. It is about having agency and control over how their experiences and identities are portrayed and understood.

Unfortunately, at times of such underrepresentation, our stories might be dismissed because it does not cater for the demands of mainstream viewers to buttress their existing prejudices and instead challenge the dominant narratives. But no matter how tiny the platform may be there is an urgency to take control of our stories and to take up spaces. It becomes nearly hopeless to expect the humanisation of marginalised characters by external storytellers as in such power imbalances the dominant narratives will inevitably push the bestial images.

And this storytelling should not give space to internalise the denigration of the dominant narratives as if the marginalised are something close to inanimate or a subhuman emerging from a squalid ghetto who are incapable to assert their rights or to think what’s good for themselves. The responsibility lies in telling with a feeling of competency that we are enough to self-validate our lived experiences. To speak briefly, it is to tell a story by prioritising our consciousness more. And furthermore, when we write as a minority the best way is that we do not follow the prescriptions of self-expression designed for us by them but to negate their paternalistic positions of scrutiny and validation. It is not our duty to write for them in anticipation so they comprehend, validate or magically empathise but to write in such a way that emancipates us as well as permeates the same feeling of emancipation to others in the minority. 

In conclusion, the power dynamics inherent in the intersection of art, propaganda, and marginalisation are complex and significant. Throughout the annals of history, cinema and other artistic mediums have been deftly manipulated by dominant factions to shape prevailing narratives and fortify their societal control. Marginalised communities must recognize the importance of taking control of their own narratives,  as external narrators may not adeptly capture the true essence of their lived experiences or champion their best interests. By actively engaging in the creation and dissemination of their own stories, marginalised individuals can effectively challenge the dominance of prevailing narratives and reclaim autonomy over their identities and experiences. The onus lies in constructing tales that exalt the consciousness of marginalised communities while fervently repudiating the derogatory undercurrents perpetuated by the prevailing order.

It becomes essential to embolden individuals to self-validate their lived experiences, assert their rights, and independently navigate their paths. When undertaking the role of a minority writer, adhering to the predetermined scripts designed by the powerful is not a requisite, but rather, it becomes necessary to reject the paternalistic positions of scrutiny and validation. It is not incumbent upon us to write with the anticipation of comprehension, validation, or even miraculous empathy from the mainstream; rather, our focus should be on emancipating ourselves while simultaneously kindling a similar emancipatory fervour within other members of the minority community. 

In this pursuit, storytelling as a minority transcends the realm of catering to the expectations of mainstream audiences and seeks to dismantle the existing power structures. It is an act of reclaiming agency and fostering liberation. By asserting our own narratives and perspectives, we can effectively counteract the pernicious narratives imposed upon us, thereby shaping a more inclusive and equitable future. In a world where dominant narratives invariably marginalise and dehumanise, the act of reclaiming our stories assumes paramount importance. Through storytelling that amplifies marginalised voices, challenges the status quo, and engenders empathy and understanding, we strive to realise a society where diverse perspectives are cherished, esteemed, and faithfully represented.

Zufishan Rahman is a 24-year-old university student and a poet. Her works have been previously featured in Nether Quarterly, Maktoob, The Wire and Aainanagar Magazine. Reach out on instagram @thedialecticalbiologist

Zufishan Rahman
Zufishan Rahman
Zufishan Rahman is a graduate of Biological Sciences from University of Allahabad. She mostly writes poems on her Muslim identity and is currently working on a collection. She posts a lot of obscure poetry on her Instagram @zufishanrahman
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