In the Eighties, Gajendra Chauhan became well-known for his role of Yudhishthir in India's most famous epic, the Mahabharata. Throughout the 94-episode television serial, he was its moral radar - a man, brother and king who could do no wrong. Post-Eighties, Chauhan diversified into playing top cop (Hum Sab Chor Hain, 1995), car salesman (Baghban, 2003), forest worker (Jungle Love, 1986), and had substantial screen presence in Saaya (1994), one of the episodes of the Zee Horror Show.
Ordinarily, it would not matter.
But his appointment as chairman of India's premier film institute, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the laboratory for research and production of the highest levels of Indian cinema for nearly 50 years, has brought his filmography up for scrutiny.
Students say this is not a personal attack. Chauhan, and the response to his selection, they say, is a symbol of the 'fear' of a commercial take-over of the institution that has haunted FTII students for the past 15 years. "He is not of our blood group. FTII is not the place to push political agendas or commercial causes," says documentary film-maker Ritu Bharadwaj, of the 2006 batch. Students talk of earlier government-sponsored proposals to introduce short-term courses for commercial gain.
"Chauhan's selection has given a face to all those fears," says Megh Pant, who has acted in Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai, and is a member of the FTII alumni association that is backing the protests. At the on-campus meeting with the current students' union, Chauhan, he says, was not even discussed.
In the Eighties, Gajendra Chauhan became well-known for his role of Yudhishthir (second from right) in India's most famous epic, the Mahabharata
The issue, however, has given students, and the film fraternity in general, an opportunity to raise other unresolved and less-talked-about problems that dog the institute. FTII's status as a polytechnic instead of a "centre of excellence", has a bearing on its lack of funds. The Bill to upgrade its status is pending. The PK Nair Committee report, drafted by India's iconic film archivist, Paramesh Krishnan Nair, to upgrade the institution's syllabus and faculty selection has not been worked on. Students, in fact, say it is "missing".
The counter-attack on the institute promoting a cinematic utopia, and the question of 'productivity' has riled them further. "How many directors has FTII produced that belong to the 100-crore club is not our concern. Even our student diploma films go to Cannes. At least, 80 per cent of Bollywood's best technical expertise comes from FTII graduates," says Kamal Swaroop, a visiting professor to the institute, and director of the cult arthouse film, Om Dar-b-Dar (1988).
Saeed Mirza, the last chairman and National Award winning director (Naseem, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aataa Hai), upgraded the infrastructure, and subsidised the course, among other initiatives.
"Saeed Mirza really steered the institute," says Swaroop.
FTII is not just an institute for directors but the whole gamut of film professions, points out Dibakar Banerjee, one of the most consistent film-makers of India's New Cinema. It also grooms actors. Smita Patil was an FTII graduate when she debuted in Shyam Benegal's film Charandas Chor. Rajkummar Rao (Queen, LSD) and Sayani Gupta (Margarita with a Straw) are other FTII students with stand-out performances.
"Chauhan's choice is underwhelming. An analogy would be my selection as the chairman over a senior cinematographer in an institute of cinematography. Just because I'm a known film professional. I will not have the respect of the cinematographer community. The FTII chairman must have the respect of the whole film fraternity at large as a part of his qualification. Otherwise the respect in the institute goes down," says Banerjee.
Gajendra Chauhan (read his interview online, 'My favourite film is 3 Idiots') does have a tangential FTII connection. "I have been a student of Roshan Taneja who opened his academy after he left the FTII," he says over the telephone from Mumbai. Has he met the students on strike in Pune? "I have appealed to them through the media," he says.
Students, meanwhile, have been busy working the social media. A quick scroll through FTII pages reveals a range of responses to the face-off: from slogans raised against the decision to a dusting out of Malayalam auteur John Abraham's tribute to his mentor Ritwik Ghatak and invocations to Albert Camus and Sergei Eisenstein.
Personal angst, however, seems to have produced the best lasting image. Sample this from an FTII student's post: "I was just preparing to hang myself. But then my grandfather's photograph spoke to me…."