Saturday, April 13, 2024

Watching ‘Dune’ from the East

The second part of the ‘Dune’ film series, adapted from Frank Herbert’s novel of the same title and directed by Denis Villeneuve with a stellar cast of globally acclaimed actors like Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya and Javier Bardem, is gaining attention worldwide. Rising Box office collections and high ratings have made it a remarkable success. 

Dune was published in 1965 and Herbert had spent around six years writing the novel. The novel explores themes of philosophy, religion, politics, etc.

The story takes place in a far-flung future, where Humans have colonised space. The ruling Imperium chooses one house among the various houses and empires for the mining of a precious resource, mélange or spice, found in the desert of Arrakis. 

The film, inspired by the text, revolves around the prince of one of the great houses of the fictional universe of Dune, Paul Atreides, played by Timothee Chalamet. As the cinematic rendition unfolds, the protagonist is found entangled in the politics of the chaotic planet of Arrakis.

The alienated modern viewer tries to find in any film, a white pristine hero and a dark villain. This human tendency to create heroes and villains is being used by propagandist conglomerates, corporations, media houses, filmmakers and writers in shaping consciousness and building fake narratives, providing one with a hero mould and a villain mould.

Dune successfully creates this hero-villain contradiction. 

The film masterfully bribes the Western credence of ‘saviour west’ to its viewers. Dune thrives on the traditional Western narrative of the ‘supreme West’ and the ‘inferior Rest’, the ‘civilised West’ and the ‘uncivilised rest’. The benighted natives of Arrakis, Fremens being led by the progressive Atreides insinuates this doltish construct. In a way, the description of Fremens replicates the accounts told by colonisers about the brutish natives. Watching ‘Dune’ at a time when Israel incessantly bombs Gaza, intending to wipe the ‘uncivilised’, Fremen-like Palestinians, opens an array of thoughts off the screen. 

The vague use of Arabic terminology like ‘Sietch’, ‘Shai Hulud’, ‘Lisan Al Ghayb’ and Islamic cultural elements hints toward something, many critics seem to deliberately overlook. By commodifying the archetypal aesthetics for which Muslims all over the world are ridiculed and despised, Dune, ironically, glamourises and romanticises the elements of Islamophobia.

Dune, on the other hand, latently encapsulates the conflict between Islam and the West. Although there are references to Buddhist teachings as well, the first part of the book relies heavily on Islamic elements. The destruction of Arrakis for Mélange is somehow similar to the destruction of the Middle East for Oil by the West in the post-war period. 

The film can be confusing in many stances, whether it really ridicules or does it appreciate Arab culture? The Bedouin resembling Fremens are both browns and whites escaping the racial distinctions. 

What one should rather focus on are the crucial geopolitical questions raised by Dune of the clashes between powerful civilisations for resources leading to the obliteration of the weaker sections of the society or the submergence of the majority into the cosmopolitan proletariat of the western world. The elite thrives as the plebeian dies. 

‘Who will our new oppressors be?’ spoken by Zendaya playing Chani in the film, summarises the war games played by the superpowers. However, Dune’s accidental commitment to critiquing the empire appears timely and subversive – especially in a world where the going narrative strongly reinforces the logic of conquest in the Middle East. Its representation issues go back to Herbert’s books, which raises questions as to how adaptations can remain faithful to the core of their source materials when the latter themselves are laden with problems as Rohitha Naraharisetty writes in The Swaddle. 

Dune’s conception of religion as a tool used by the Imperium’s Bene Jesserit (witches) to maintain the status quo by disseminating the ruling state’s ideology is perturbing as well. It shows Herbert’s chauvinist understanding of religion. Herbert’s conception of religion appears to be similar to the Marxist notion of religion being used as a tool to disseminate the ruling state’s ideology. 

Dune was published by Herbert at a time of US-Soviet Union tensions and the film adaptation is released at the time of Israel-Palestine genocide and various other conflicts waiting to burgeon.

Does Dune believe in the Fremen’s autonomy? Does the United States believe in Palestine’s sovereignty? Who will be the messiah and the saviour of the Palestinians? Who will save the Palestinians from submerging in the Ginormous Ocean of corpses caused by western ambition? These are the questions hesitantly raised by Dune, compelling one to cudgel brains. 

As Arnold Toynbee writes in ‘Civilization on Trial’ Western Civilization catering to the material sphere of Man has overlooked the spiritual sphere and as the idiom goes “Nature abhors vacuum”. The rise of a spiritual force to fill this vacuum is natural. The rise of a Mahdi is anticipated.

Nabeel Mazhari is a student of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He writes on a multitude of topics concerning politics, history and philosophy.

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