Cast of characters: Enraged students, angry filmmakers, confused ministry officials, a sulking actor
Setting: A film institute. Time has stood still. Equipment is outdated. Entrants from seven years ago are struggling to complete a three-year course
The strike at FTII has the makings of an absurd drama.
Yudhishtir from the Mahabharat is appointed chairman of the country's premier film school. Gajendra Chauhan's only claim to fame is the 1980s TV serial. Most of his recent appearances have been on the campaign trail for the country's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).Angry students boycott classes and course work. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy responds by calling them Naxalites; RSS mouthpiece Organiser labels them 'anti-Hindu' and 'mentally challenged'.
Students have scattered representations of their rage across FTII's Pune campus. A graveyard installation bears one cross each for Film, Drama, Music and Freedom of Expression.
The students, meanwhile, are so enraged by Chauhan and other recent political appointments that their strike continues for over a month, and keeps going.
Across the Pune campus of the Film and Television Institute of India, they have scattered representations of their rage: A graveyard bearing one cross each for Film, Drama, Music and Freedom of Expression; graffiti that says 'FTII is not Modi's toy'; a handicapped man made of film reel.
The most telling is a large poster that says Unplug, Alt, Delete, demanding that the institute hit refresh. Because it's not just about Chauhan.
India's premier film institute does not have enough teachers, equipment or labs; it has never bridged the chasm it has faced since analog turned to digital; and it has a biting backlog that has built up into a vicious circle of too many students trying to share too little infrastructure, leading to more backlog and so on.
A handicapped man made of film reel, is another installation to mark students' protest at FTII.
"There are two studios, two cameras and one common lens kit on campus," says Swapnil Ninawe, a student of direction. "Setting up, shooting and dismantling one set takes a week. Students have to wait their turn. These long waits continue all the way through post-production."
Ninawe joined FTII in 2008 and should have graduated four years ago. He's still struggling to complete course work and hopes to graduate in December.
There are currently 132 seats across 11 diploma and certificate courses at the institute, but 400 students on campus; about 200 - or 50% - have failed to complete their syllabus in the three years allotted to them.
"Faculty is a big area of concern. The camera department has just one permanent faculty member, the rest are temporary. Posts have not been filled for years. The pay scale is low," says sound department faculty Vishwas Nerlekar. "Though the infrastructure is sufficient on paper, due to the extension of courses, there are times when two or three batches are using the same facilities."
Nerlekar and five other faculty and former faculty members have now come together to form the Save FTII panel, to negotiate with the government and students in an attempt to end the standoff.
"I am concerned about the students," Nerlekar says. "A new batch is supposed to take an entrance exam on August 9."
Students and prominent ex-students argue that the strike is important precisely because this is a critical time for the institute.
"Many of us are BJP supporters. I voted for the BJP," says Lavanya Ramaiah, 26, a third-year editing student. "But it is worrying to see people of certain beliefs and loyalties appointed to academic institutions with no attempt to maintain academic stature."
Former FTII chairman Adoor Gopalakrishnan, also a former student here, and a National Award-winning filmmaker, would agree.
"A premier institute such as this one has to be given its due respect. According to FTII Society rules, its members must be eminent people from the fields of cinema, art, literature and theatre. This year that was not the case, barring a few eminent people who have resigned," he says. "Students are agitating against a lack of qualification. Their struggle is for FTII's future students, who otherwise may not know what it once stood for."
Gopalakrishnan is referring to Anagha Ghaisas, Rahul Solapurkar, Narender Pathak and Shailesh Gupta, who were appointed to the FTII Society this year.Ghaisas calls herself "a proud RSS supporter" (the RSS is the ideological parent of the BJP). In a 2014 court order over a disputed payment, she was described as not knowing the difference between fiction and documentary.
Pathak is former Maharashtra president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Gupta made a film in 2014 called Shapath Modi Ki (Modi's Oath), a gushing paean to the now prime minister.
"Pro-Modi posts crowd Gupta's Facebook timeline. One can argue over whether Facebook should be used to measure a person's ideology. But in a country where the prime minister communicates via Twitter, sentiments on social media matter," says Ranjit Nair, 27, a third-year student of direction, sipping tea in the al-fresco section of the canteen.
Three FTII Society members - Oscar-winning sound engineer Resool Pookutty, and two National Award winners, cinematographer Santosh Sivan and actor Pallavi Joshi - have resigned in support of the students' protest.
"When Chauhan's appointment was made public, we had no idea who he was. We had to google the guy," says Vikas Urs, 30, former general secretary of the student association and third-year editing student. "His credentials didn't match former chairmen's. Then the FTII Society members' names caught our attention."
A miffed Mishra concludes: "FTII is a lab. But for cinematic experiments, not political ones."
(With inputs from Kanika Sharma)