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The students of FTII are on an indefinite strike. They believe the recent appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman will alter the very essence of India's premier institution for cinema studies
Classes have been suspended, the editing and mixing studios are empty and hours are being spent deliberating the best way to frame the letter to be sent to the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. For over ten days the students of India's oldest and most prestigious institute for cinema studies have been on an indefinite strike to protest the I&B Ministry's appointment of Television actor and BJP worker Gajendra Chauhan as the President of the FTII governing Council and Chairman of the FTII Society for three years.
Best known as the actor who played `Yudhishtir' in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat broadcast on Doordarshan in the 1990s, Chauhan's subsequent work has included roles in B-grade Hindi films and in teleshopping ads. His less than remarkable portfolio is not the only thing that has made the FTII students see red. They see Chauhan's appointment as an outright political appointment given that he is a BJP member who campaigns for the party in the north. Neel Manikant a final year student says, “When we heard the name of the new appointee we were stumped. No one knew of him or his work. There is no explanation for why he was chosen to head this institution. We have no problems with anyone’s political views but when that political association is the driving force behind the appointment then it has to be questioned.”
The June 9 press release that announced Chauhan's appointment also mentioned the reconstitution of the FTII Society with “Persons of eminence connected with Films and Television Education, Journalism, Literature, Etc.”, as members. Barring three - filmmaker Jahnu Barua, actors Pallavi Joshi and Vidya Balan the rest of the (eight) members, FTII students and alumni believe are appointments that declare the government's clear agenda to politicise the nature and role of the institution. Narendra Pathak, is a former president of the Maharashtra ABVP; Pranjlal Saikia, an office bearer of an RSS-linked organisation Sanskar Bharati; Rahul Solapurkar, is intimately associated with the BJP and Anagha Ghaisas, a documentary filmmaker who has made films that promote the RSS agenda.
Pankaj Purandhare, who graduated in the year 2000 says, “For an institute that was spearheaded by the likes of Ritwik Ghatak, and has produced names that have made a mark in every field of cinema, the government’s actions show no understanding of the value of FTII. One cannot impose a person whose lack of a body of work itself speaks of what the government wants to do to the institute. This place thrived because it was left to its own devices by successive governments. By trying to impose the political party’s version of what constitutes nationalism, BJP will stifle one of the oldest voices that have shown India in its truest colours.”
It is the probable stifling of the freedom of expression that has become the point that has galvanized the protest. FTII has had as its chair left leaning filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Saeed Mirza, and Vinod Khanna who was a BJP MP during his time at the FTII, but students say that never before has there been such a large influx of people with a clear and overt political affiliation and agenda on the governing council.
While the classes and studios are empty, the walls of the institute are shouting the outrage and anxiety the students are going through at this time. Images of renowned filmmakers accompanied by quotes of revolution and graffiti calling for the “fall of fascism” are everywhere you look. Students and alumni alike say the plurality at the Film and TV Institute has allowed creativity to break new ground. Kamal Swaroop, the filmmaker known for the cult avant-garde film Om Dar-b-dar and an alumnus, was at the institute as an impartial bystander. He says, “To students who worship cinema, who dream of the likes of Goddard and Tarkovsky you bring someone the stature of a Chauhan and you actually expect the students to follow. Students today are very aware of their rights and extremely informed. It is the lack of any credentials of all the appointments that the students are protesting.”
Established as 'Film Institute of India' in 1960 on the premises of what used to be the iconic Prabhat Studio in Pune, FTII boasts of a rich legacy of contribution to Indian cinema. The Institute was renamed in 1971 after the Television Wing, earlier located at New Delhi was shifted to Pune, bringing together film and television studies under a common roof. The FTII since then has produced several luminaries in the field of direction, acting, cinematography and sound mixing in commercial as well as alternate cinema. The FTII alumni association across the country has lent its unconditional support to the strike. National Award winning cinematographer Santosh Sivan, who was appointed to the FTII society under the alumni category has resigned as a mark of protest.
Chauhan’s hesitation on live television when asked if he would allow a film to be made on PM Modi has cemented the fear that the spirit of FTII is under threat. Reema Kaur, a final year editing student from Delhi asks, “Before students could pick up on the fact that the Society members are affiliated to RSS, we started hearing that FTII has to be changed, it has to be made national. How are we anti-national? If we make films that talk about the tribals and exploitation then are we indulging in anti-national activities.” Eminent personalities such as filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and academic-politician Yogendra Yadav too visited the FTII campus in Pune to express solidarity with the students and register their protest against Chauhan’s appointment.
However, the strike means that backlogs will pile up. FTII has a reputation for delayed projects and three-year courses going on to finish after four and a half. Students like Tarun Sharma, in the second-year direction course say, "The appointment left us no choice but to protest. If we receive a concrete action plan from the government then we shall reconsider our actions but till then the strike will go one."
As of date, students say they are committed to their course of action. Talks are on to resolve the deadlock and the Information & Broadcasting Ministry has invited students for a dialogue. But, with the FTII’s history of strikes that go on for months and the hard stand taken by the students on the one hand and the Modi government’s reputation of not backing down on the other, it may be long while before things are back to normal at the Pune campus.