Dissent and Space
Popular Culture has historically been one of the most important bastions for the spread and
application of dissent. It encompasses some features that allow for a movement with dissent characteristics to thrive, with variety like music, film, photography, writing and art, among others. Some of the most important voices of dissent in the world have come from the field of the arts, and so have reliably made a great claim for being the forebearers of such work.
Speaking against the activities of a ruling power, which misuses its power or has nefarious
goals in mind that are against the will or interest of the people that they govern, is supremely
important in order for the ruling power to not take advantage of its people. Therefore, these
powers are very willing to suppress any kind of dissent that would allow the people they
govern to gain an understanding of the injustice being meted out to them.
If we talk about music first, the advent of punk music was one of the most recent forms of a
movement that used music as a way of dissent against not only a ruling power, but an overall
socio-cultural status quo. It allowed for the creation and consumption of music to go to the
hands of the common people, instead of remaining a mainstay of the elite. Of course, punk
was preceded by movements like the 1960s Flower Power movement, which introduced us to legends of music such as Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Marley, John
Lennon and many others, whose voices and music were pivotal in raising support for a
movement against the ruling status quo which had completely eroded public trust at that point with its excesses. Punk was a natural succession of this movement which reached its height in the 1990s, when artists like Joy Division, Nirvana, The Clash and many others were
redrawing the boundaries of what was possible as dissent in the artistic field.
Films have been another important location for the perpetuation of dissent, and nowhere is
this more relevant than in the anti-war films of the Vietnam War era, which were aesthetically responsible in a large way for how we view the war in retrospect. Some of the most prominent examples of this era were the films ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘All the President’s Men’. This was an important era even for Indian cinema, as we saw a large number of films being made post emergency that were anti-government, and were giving a voice and opinion to the people for the first time, outside of insipid love stories. Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had their Calcutta trilogies that depicted the state of affairs in the city, and were described as their ‘Angriest films’, while the parallel hindi cinema was rife with the works of Shyam Benegal and Shekhar Kapur, and satire was prominent, an example being ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’. Cinema has benefited enormously from the act of dissent, legitimising it not only as an artform, but also as a creative and philosophical endeavour which allowed for a deeper look into why the government sometimes does not work for the people they are supposed to, and forced viewers to question it.
There was no doubt about the fact that cinema had the ability to influence public perception and behaviour when it came to the idea of questioning the government or the society for redundant ideologies or wilful misgovernance. We are seeing a reconsideration of who we dissent against today. For some years now, the films world has been the epicentre of a massive effort to fight against the entrenched ideas of patriarchy that pervade our society. After the 2017 MeToo Movement, the women of the world’s film industry have moved into a relentless drive to get recognised for their work. The last year was groundbreaking in the history of the Oscars for the number of women who were nominated, and this year in 2021 we will see the first woman of colour being nominated for a best director award, Chloe Zhao.
It is also necessary to see that women are not only making films for themselves, but they are making good films on all sorts of topics, and are now being seen for the first time in an equal light. Even the Indian film industry is slowly finding its way, with Aarti Kadav’s science fiction films and the revolutionary films Pink and Thappad.
All this is to say that the incentive for dissent is not the creation of these pieces of artwork,
rather it is the importance of creating spaces for dissent where the artworks come into being.
Picasso did not paint ‘Guernica’ as an artistic endeavour, he painted it as a way of telling a
story of oppression and mindless violence against powerless people. The idea of dissent has
always been to give voice and power to these powerless who do not have a say in matters
except in some cases, when they can vote, and even then, their only right is taken away
through rigged elections and other immoral means. The utility of popular culture as spaces
for dissent is unimaginably great, as can be proven by the great lengths to which the creators
of Star Trek went to hide the fact that their show was an elaborate anti-war piece, which they
did by enamouring it in scandals of the sensual nature with the censor boards, who completely missed the actual agenda.
Today, the space for dissent is moving to a new field which was unimaginable and perhaps
considered impossible only a few years ago. We are seeing a rise in the power of the internet,
where dissenters organise themselves, help each other and spread information. This is a space that is the most terrifying to the ruling powers, as they have no way of controlling it except for disabling it completely, which is against their benefit too.
The advantage of the internet age cannot be expressed enough. For an example, the instigator of the Jessica Lal candle-light protest, an NDTV reporter, once wrote that the most important way to spread information about the protest was through an SMS campaign, but it would have been far more efficient and even more wide-reaching had the internet existed at that time. Today, the internet and social media has become an invaluable tool in many wide-ranging protests in the world, from Hong Kong, to Myanmar, to BLM in the USA and India, where the instruments of the state embellished in TV media tried to delegitimize a protest against the recent Farmer laws and an organiser by claiming that these protests were all pre-planned by a nexus of “anti-Indians” who used a specific toolkit. What they did not understand, or perhaps wilfully failed to mention to the viewers, is that a toolkit lays out basic safety precautions, such as bringing water bottles and taking care of yourself after being pepper sprayed. A toolkit is enabled by the existence of a space like the internet, and dissent in the modern world is all the better for it.
Written by: Trayambak Chakravarty