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'For now, the strike is on'— the last sentence of the official statement issued by the students of FTII, after their talks with the I&B Ministry failed, describes the stalemate. The stand taken by the students is now being supported by voices outside the campus because the issues being raised go beyond just one institution.
The road outside Shastri Bhawan in New Delhi is a high-security zone. It houses 18 central ministries and was most recently in the news for the security breach at the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. However, last week it was witness to close to a 100 students and activists protesting outside the complex. The students belonged to JNU, DTU who were there to show solidarity with the 10-member FTII delegation who were in talks with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to resolve the ongoing strike at FTII campus in Pune.
Students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) have been on strike for 26 days to protest against what they term as ‘political appointments’ to the institute’s governing council. They have demanded the removal of small-screen actor, BJP-worker Gajendra Chauhan as their chairman and the reconstitution of the FTII governing council. The talks in New Delhi lasted for more than two hours. The 10-member delegation headed by Oscar-winner Resul Pookutty and filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli first met with Joint secretary (films), K Sanjay Murti for close to two hours and later with I&B Minister Arun Jaitley himself for about 40 minutes. But the two-and half hour talks failed to resolve the issue.
Terming the talks held in New Delhi as "inconclusive and unsatisfactory", the FTII's Students Association said that the agitation that started on June 12 will continue. Recent news reports after the talks with ministry say that the government is looking at shifting the ownership of the institute to Bollywood or a shutdown. The I&B ministry is reportedly relying on the Expenditure Reforms Commission, appointed in 2000 and headed by former finance secretary KP Geetha Krishnan, which had suggested handing over the institute to the film industry. The I&B report also says the average cost of education for an FTII student funded by the state is in excess of Rs 10 lakh per year and is a huge burden on the institute.
Reacting to these reports, students say that the selective statements were trying to deflect attention from the original issue of the arbitrary appointments, “During the meeting neither the Minister nor the Secretary addressed the issue of appointments even once. They simply reiterated earlier promises of making the institute into one of national excellence but with no timeline. Now they are quoting the apparent investment made on each student in terms of infrastructure and technology which simply is putting a price on culture, art. These are obvious pressure tactics and also a way to take attention away from our demands which is asking for categorical, time-bound answers and transparent administrative processes.”
Three members of the FTII society cinematographer Santosh Sivan, filmmaker Jahnu Barua and actor Pallavi Joshi have resigned their posts after the talks failed saying they would begin work at the institute only after the deadlock is resolved. Actor Pallavi Joshi’s letter says, “There doesn’t seem to be a vision or plan of action regarding how to help the institution. One can’t go about just asking to be given a chance to perform. I don’t want to see unhappy, disgruntled young filmmaking talent coming out the film school. Creativity is one field where you are allowed to dream big. The curb of freedom of thought will clip their wings to do that and excel.”
With the protest over the appointments gathering steam, film personalities like Kiran Rao, Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah have come out to back the protesting students. National award-winning filmmaker and former chairman of FTII Saeed Mirza said, “This issue isn’t about FTII alone; it’s about freedom of speech, thought and education. A leader has to have independent thought and cultural institutions cannot be looked at through the prism of serving a political motive. I wasn’t surprised when this appointment was made and hence I am here to support the students.”
Most who have come out to publicly support the students say the agitation is for a bigger cause than just controversial appointments. They question the Centre’s attitude towards cultural and educational institutions in the country. The treatment meted out to art maestro MF Hussain at the hand of right-wing groups is cited as proof of the imposition of cultural hegemony on the rest of the country. Contemporary Art curator Sumesh Sharma who has been in the industry for over two decades says, “Self-censorship has become the norm in art circles in Mumbai so let’s not even talk about liberal thought in the rest of the country. This trend is fatal for any culture.”
Filmmaker Rajat Kapoor calls the strike “a worthy cause”, he says “It is sad that the cause of art and culture is being carried by the youth who are putting their careers on the line. They are being bad mouthed, their course will be delayed but they are here because of a vision and an ideal. That is worth applauding and the students deserve everyone’s support.”
For the time being with artists of all kinds stepping up to show solidarity with the students the protest meetings are peppered with performances—a welcome boost for the morale of the students who are putting their careers and future on the line. The performances and performers are also a reminder of the pivotal role filmmakers and storytellers play in society.