Students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) are on strike against the naming of Gajendra Chauhan as the new chairman. They are appalled that a premier institute that at one time boasted of chiefs such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and till a year ago, Saeed Mirza, and has turned out a vast number of illustrious alumni should now be headed by relatively a non-entity whose filmic past includes outings such as Khuli Khidki. The one role that brought him some fame was as Yudhishtir in the TV serial Mahabharat, which was aired in 1988. Since then, he has been in forgettable films in side roles, strangely often playing a policeman. It is hardly a secret that he is not in the same league as any of the names mentioned above and does not even command any commercial clout as a box office attraction. In short, he is not a noteworthy personality in the Hindi cinema scheme of things, someone whose name immediately invokes respect.
However, he has been with the BJP for 20 years or so and has campaigned for the party in several elections. At one time, the BJP used to pick up recognisable TV actors who had played mythological figures and make them MPs — Dipika Chikhalia, who had acted as Sita in Ramayana, and Nitish Bharadwaj, who was Krishna in the same Mahabharat as Chauhan, are two examples — but since then, has become wary of handing out tickets for the Lok Sabha elections. Chauhan has been given this prestigious post as a gift for being a party loyalist.
Given that he is not a highly respected or even well-known name in the world of cinema, what could have motivated the NDA government to plant him in FTII? What is it about Chauhan that impressed the I&B ministry so much that they decided to pluck him out of relative obscurity and hand over this top job, a decision they must have known will raise some dust?
Three possibilities must be considered. First, he was chosen because he was a hardcore party man and he — and his political godfathers — may have felt he needed to be rewarded. That is par for the course for political parties who have to keep their rank and file and hacks happy by dispensing some loaves and fishes of office. The second reason could be that the government wanted a pliant man in the job. Since it has come to power, the BJP has systematically installed its own chosen personages in posts ranging from the National Council of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) to the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) to the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC). It wants to seize control of institutions, especially those that preside over culture, a prime project of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which feels history and culture as they are taught in modern India is antithetical to the Hindu point of view.
That still does not answer why Chauhan was chosen. Could it be because the Sangh — and the BJP — just does not have truly talented people in its fold? The party’s poor bench strength has been widely noted; when someone like Chauhan is the best it can do, this impression gets confirmed. Or contrariwise, does the government actually think he is a talented and capable man who will do a good job? If so, what exactly gave it that impression?
His pliability goes in his favour, but surely the government could have got someone who was not ill-disposed towards the Sangh or the BJP and could be relied upon to be amenable.
Perhaps it is a combination of all these factors. A small-time actor with no reputation or administrative experience who would be beholden to his political bosses and will never show any streak of independence — he is the best kind of person the BJP wants. We have already seen that in the case of Pahlaj Nihalani, maker of mediocre Hindi films who is now presiding over the CBFC (angering, it may be pointed out, even other BJP nominees).
The students of the FTII have gone on strike though the film industry in general and the famous alumni in particular have been strangely silent. The FTII has been troubled for a few years and needed a firm and inspiring hand to guide it over the next few years. It still produces first-class technicians who are valued by the Indian film industry. All it needs is a top-class manager with a fine cinematic understanding, a sense of imagination. Nothing in Chauhan’s CV so far indicates he has it.
This episode once again shows that while the BJP wants to get rid of those appointed by previous governments and keep an iron grip on institutions, it is finding it hard to come up with professionals of quality, certainly from within its ranks. And it is not prepared to look outside its fold because it does not trust anyone else.
When narrow, party loyalty is the chief criteria for selecting people to manage important cultural — and other — institutions, the Nihalanis and Chauhans will be the best that we will see, the interests of the institutions and the students be damned.
Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal