FTII controversy

Saffron script

Print edition : July 10, 2015

FTII students perform a street play as a mark of protest, on June 17. Photo: MANDAR TANNU

The locked gates of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, where the students are on strike. Photo: ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Gajendra Singh Chauhan (left) and Pankaj Dheer campaign for the BJP candidate Hema Malini in Mathura ahead of the 2014 general election. Photo: PTI

Harishankar Nachimuthu, Rajeev Shukla and Vikas Urs explain FTII students' stand at a press conference on the campus. Photo: Anupama Katakam

FTII students refuse to accept the government’s nomination of a television serial actor as the chairman of the institute’s governing council.

IT is becoming more and more apparent that the Central government under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is determined to paint every government institution in the country saffron. The latest victim is the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. Gajendra Singh Chauhan, who played Yudhistir in the television serial Mahabharat, has been appointed president of the FTII and chairman of its governing council.

FTII students have gone on strike in protest against the ad hoc selection of governing council members. The post of the chairperson lay vacant for six months after the previous incumbent Saeed Mirza’s term was over, but the students are not prepared to accept Chauhan.

Vikas Urs, a final-year student and member of the FTII’s student association, explained why Chauhan’s appointment was unacceptable: “He does not have the credentials to run a place like this. Putting aside that he is a supporter of a right-wing party that has proved it has little respect for freedom of expression, Chauhan has absolutely no experience other than acting in television shows and some very ordinary films.”

Harishankar Nachimuthu, president of the students’ association, told Frontline: “We want the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to clarify what the method adopted was in the appointment of the new FTII chief. Our fear with political appointees, especially those from the saffron parties, is that freedom of speech will be curbed. There is an apprehension that our creativity will be stifled.”

At a press conference held under the much-loved wisdom tree (a mango tree), with banners hanging all around, a students’ association leader said: “People like Gajendra Chauhan and the other appointees are not in sync with the ethos and vision of the institution.” The leader also said that the strike was meant to emphasise that the appointment was not an isolated one but one of “many such appointments across the country which includes [those in] the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation], the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification], the Children’s Film Society [CFS] and other premier organisations and institutions of India, thereby undermining the autonomy and the integrity of these spaces. These spaces are of the highest academic, cultural and technical importance and such disregard of their value is difficult to fathom.”

Four other appointees among the eight members of the FTII governing council have strong saffron links, Urs said. “This is a clear indication that there is an agenda. We learnt that they told the media that there was a need to instil some nationalism in the FTII. These kinds of statements are signs of right-wing ideology.”

One of the appointees, Anagha Ghasias, has a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) background and has made documentary films supporting Narendra Modi. Narendra Pathak was the Maharashtra president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for four years. Pranjal Saikia is an office-bearer of the RSS-linked Sanskar Bharati. Rahul Solapurkar has attempted to fight the general elections on the BJP ticket.

In 2012, an FTII student was attacked by ABVP supporters who claimed he was a naxalite as he had helped a cultural performance with alleged Maoist links. “We are artists and film-makers who believe in freedom of self-expression through the medium of films, music and theatre. We have been scarred by such incidents, hence the lack of faith in anything saffron,” Urs said.

Another student said: “They call us leftist and therefore anti-national. Just the fact that we have a certain ideology does not make us anti-national.”

The strike was called on June 12. The situation reached an impasse with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) not willing to respond to the students’ demands. On June 17, I&B Minister Arun Jaitely finally broke the deadlock by saying the Ministry would send a team of representatives to start a dialogue with the students. He said that it was important that the students get back to classes. Reportedly, Jaitely also said that he would consider a panel of film personalities to look into the issues of the institute. But the Ministry made no comment on Chauhan’s appointment.

Chauhan told the media that he had 35 years’ experience as an actor and should be given a chance to prove himself. The FTII student body’s response was: “You have no connection whatsoever with FTII…. You are not an alumnus, nor have you worked or associated professionally with students or artists from here…. You have nothing in your body of work that shows any kind of affiliation to the philosophy or aesthetics of cinema we practise here….”

Award-winning documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan joined the protesters at the FTII. “I went to Pune to show solidarity. It was heartening to see the strong resistance being put up by FTII students to the government’s attempt to foist on them a chairperson whose sole qualification seems to have been his loyalty to Mr Narendra Modi. Much has been written about Mr Gajendra Chauhan’s appearance in a soft-porn film, his dance-a-thon with Asaram Bapu that is viewable on YouTube, and his telemarketing of gems for the superstitious,” he said.

Patwardhan told Frontline: “I am worried about the blatant effort of the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] regime to leave no government institution unmarked by saffron, even if they are running thin on qualified saffronites. Let us look at three recent appointments relating to cinema. The first was Pahlaj Nihalani, who replaced the renowned Leela Samson as head of the CBFC. Nihalani’s only qualification appears to have been that he made campaign films for the BJP and Modi. After ascending to his post, Nihalani quickly became a laughing stock by banning from the screen a list of 20 words, which included Bombay.

“The next was Mukesh Khanna, who was appointed chairperson of the CFS. Mukesh had played Bhishma and Shaktiman, but his obvious qualification was that he had campaigned for Modi. He, too, was seen with Asaram Bapu and he, too, tele-marketed rudrakshas. What he will pass on to the children of this country, I shudder to think.”

All the three are not only BJP-loyalists but also nonentities and are hence amenable to pressure from the big bosses who appointed them.

“First the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology], now the FTII and the IIMs [Indian Institutes of Management]—this seems to be part of the pattern to meddle with centres of excellence to turn them into party-controlled bastions of mediocrity,” said film-maker Rakesh Sharma.

An illustrious legacy

Established in 1960, the FTII quickly became the foremost film school in the country and nurtured some of the best talents in the medium. It is so revered that people in the film industry refer to it as “the institute”. Between the film and television departments, there are about 400 students in the FTII. The courses in direction, lighting, sound and acting are the most coveted.

The FTII counts among its alumni hundreds of cinema luminaries who remain deeply connected to the institute. There has been a consistent demand over the years to include alumni in the governing council. Dharam Gulati, who heads Graftii, the alumni association, said: “We have been asking for transparency in appointments for years. The FTII produces the finest film-makers in the country. They need to understand its contribution to the country’s culture and social space.”

Noted screenwriter and alumnus Anjum Rajabali, who teaches at the FTII, said, “The FTII is the best institute for cinema and is going through a phase where it needs a visionary. He [Chauhan] is an inappropriate choice. He has no experience, thoughts or vision about education in cinema.”

Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Saeed Mirza, Raju Hirani, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sunil Sukhtankar, V.P. Mohandas, Jabeen Merchant, Santosh Sivan, Jaya Bachchan and Naseeruddin Shah are among the FTII alumni.

The lyricist Gulzar and film-makers Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan had reportedly been short-listed by the Ministry for chairing the governing council, but Chauhan pipped them to the post.

Several problems have plagued the FTII campus in recent years. The FTII is governed by the I&B Ministry and its director is a government officer. Demands for autonomy, which have been made from time to time, have fallen on deaf ears.

According to a former teacher, the syllabus is outdated in the context of recent strides in technology in the film medium. Students rarely finish their diploma course in the prescribed three years. Funds were always a problem, but the latest Budget announced that the FTII was now treated as a Centre of National Excellence and therefore entitled to more money.

In 2010, the Ministry asked a private consultant to suggest ways to revitalise the FTII. It came up with a plan to make the institute more profitable, which included huge fee hikes and the introduction of reasonably expensive short-term courses. Alumni and students objected to its saying that this would make the FTII exclusive and put it out of reach for many talented people.

In 2012, another committee, headed by the famous film archivist P.K. Nair, was constituted to draw up a road map for the FTII. Kundan Shah, Nachiket Patwardhan, Saeed Mirza, Shama Zaidi and Jabeen Merchant, along with some staff members and students, were also on the panel. The committee’s draft report said the foremost problem was the backlog of course work. There were about 150-200 extra students on campus because of this. Students did not finish their projects on time, apparently because of the lax attitude of the faculty and the administration, and this was causing pressure on the already stretched resources. The committee recommended the freezing of admissions for two years. This would allow the backlog to clear and get the courses on track again. However, while it appeared to be the right move, it was never executed, said a teacher.

Dr Mohan Agashe, film-maker, resigned as the FTII director in 2002 following student protests and strikes over his proposal to change some of the courses. He told Frontlinethat students and alumni had a strong control on the institute. “Give the alumni a chance to run it on a payment basis and we will see what happens,” he said. He felt that there was too much interference by the alumni.

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