Film and Television Institute of India students protest against television actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan when he had assumed charge as the chairperson of the institute in Mumbai on January 7, 2016. Things haven’t been the same since then.(HT file photo)
Film and Television Institute of India students protest against television actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan when he had assumed charge as the chairperson of the institute in Mumbai on January 7, 2016. Things haven’t been the same since then.(HT file photo)

At FTII, new regime meets old discontent

June 12, 2015, began like any other day at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, a leafy campus that was once the site of one of the country’s first studios, and where, even today, a wide arterial road leads off to a lake built for a film set in the 1940s.
By Dhamini Ratnam
UPDATED ON APR 21, 2019 10:22 AM IST

June 12, 2015, began like any other day at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, a leafy campus that was once the site of one of the country’s first studios, and where, even today, a wide arterial road leads off to a lake built for a film set in the 1940s. The news spread as the students filed into the canteen: a new chairperson of the governing council had been appointed after 15 months. It was Gajendra Chauhan, an actor best known for his role as Yudhishtir, the oldest of the Pandava brothers, in Mahabharata, a televised serial that aired on Doordarshan from 1988 to 1990.

The decision to protest this appointment was pretty immediate, recalls Harishankar Nachimuthu, the then president of the FTII Students’ Association (FSA). But even he couldn’t predict the nation-wide impact that the strike, which lasted 139 days and saw criminal charges slapped on 35 students, including him, would have.

“[His appointment] was clearly part of a larger agenda of saffronization of education — encouraging mediocrity, installing a puppet who would let the government do what it wanted, pushing through a certain narrative of history,” says Nachimuthu, now 31 and an assistant director in Chennai. But Chauhan’s filmography and links to the Bharatiya Janata Party — he became a member in 2004 — didn’t bother Nachimuthu and the students who congregated that night for a General Body Meeting (GBM), so much as the absence of Chauhan’s engagement with serious cinema and film academia.

“Twenty-three major works I got done in one year, one month, 26 days.

The job of the chairman is to get work done, not take classes. What ideology have I imposed?” asks Chauhan, when Hindustan Times spoke to him. “How can you ask for my removal even before seeing what I can do? Even today students message me on Facebook saying, ‘Sir we miss you’.”

Life Post 2015

During the 2016 admissions, students were asked to sign affidavits promising, among other things, good conduct. Robin Joy (28) was one of them. The former FSA president also points out a change in the academic council. Since the 1970s, two student body representatives have been voting members and participated in all discussions. However, since 2016 there has been a partial roll-back — “for the first time, student members are not allowed to participate in discussions on a number of issues which directly affect them, including syllabus, fees and discipline,” he said.

FTII director Bhupendra Kainthola admits that the students’ “participation in deliberations is restricted to only certain issues,” but clarifies that the “meeting agenda continues to be circulated to them, and their written comments are obtained and discussed.”

Rajarshi Majumdar (25), the current general secretary of the FSA, says many students who participated in later protests have been sent disciplinary notes, some have not been sent on foreign exchange programmes and have had their scholarship cancelled. “They don’t want us to protest.”

“All discipline issues involving students are addressed by the Proctor’s office. While minor rule violations are overlooked, serious indiscipline issues are dealt with firmly. In the last three years, even the courts of law stood by FTII when students who were punished took legal recourse. As for international exchange programmes, it is but natural that only the best students will be sent overseas to represent a premier institution such as FTII. The institute cannot incentivise those with a history of inappropriate conduct,” said Kainthola.

A history of striking

The Film Institute of India was set up by the government of India in 1960 under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It was re-designated after the television wing was added in 1974. The institute is governed by a governing council, headed by the chairperson, who is also the president of the FTII Society. The academic policies are formulated by the academic council, while matters involving finance are controlled by the standing finance committee.

In other words, after his appointment, the buck stopped at Chauhan.

FTII’s culture of striking is a widely known — in the early 1980s, on the lack of faculty; in 1995, following Mahesh Bhatt’s appointment as chairperson, fee hikes and converting several three year courses to two; in 2000, on the introduction of a system where students would be allowed to continue with their courses only after year-end assessments; and in 2010, after a draft report by a consultancy firm suggested a public-private partnership and short-term courses to increase revenue of the institute.

The main demand of the striking students in 2015 was to roll back the appointment of Chauhan and five FTII Society members nominated by the government under the category of “Persons of Eminence”. The Society consists of personalities and alumni connected with film, television as well as ex-officio members, all of whom are nominated by the government.

Some of the society members appointed included Narendra Pathak, the former president of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and Anagha Ghaisas, a documentary filmmaker known for her short film, Shri Narendra Modi — Gatha Asamanya Netrutva (Tale of Extraordinary Leadership).

Like the strikes of the previous decades, this one too was studentled, driven by their wish to have a say in their education. Yet, Vikas Urs, a 34-year-old cinematographer based out of Goa, and one of the leaders of the 2015 strike, points out that the FTII is not political the way other campuses are. He attributes this to the absence of organizations like ABVP or Students Federation of India or National Students Union of India, all of which are affiliated to national political parties.

“We’re all there to learn to make films, irrespective of our backgrounds and political beliefs. In that sense, our strike wasn’t coloured by an existing political thought. The strike was a question to those who wanted to impose their skewed understanding of politics, society, cinema and arts,” he said.

A season of protests

In January 2015, students from Jadavpur university in West Bengal went on a strike on account of a cover up of a sexual harassment case — the vice chancellor eventually resigned. Shortly after the FTII strike ended in September, Hyderabad Central University erupted over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student. Around the same time, students from Delhi University had started protesting the University Grant Commission’s decision to scrap fellowships to M.Phil and PhD students who hadn’t cleared the National Eligibility Test.

Simultaneously, filmmakers, artists and writers began to return their government awards. Former FTII chairperson Saeed Mirza, who returned his National Award told HT at the time, that the protest started by the institute’s students had become a movement against “intolerance, divisiveness and hate.”

Part of what made the 2015 FTII strike unique was its catholic nature — politicians from across affiliations arrived at the campus to express solidarity. This included Nitish Rane, a member of the Legislative Assembly in Maharashtra, Rahul Gandhi, the current president of the Indian National Congress, and Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Party. Performers, filmmakers and musicians visited. GBMs were held almost each night to discuss the way forward — opinions often differed, and consensus was sought.

Nearly a month into the strike, a group of students, faculty members and alumni met Arun Jaitley, the then I&B minister, who refused to roll back Chauhan’s appointment.

“The main demand was that a due process be put in place so that no government can put its ideology into running of the institute,” said Urs, who was part of that group.

In August 2015, when the then FTII director, Prashant Pathrabe, decided to carry out the assessment of the 2008 batch despite several diploma films being incomplete, the students surrounded him in his office, demanding an explanation. Later that night, the police arrested a few students from the campus, based on a complaint filed by Pathrabe — the case continues to this day.

Way Forward

HT asked Chauhan whether in hindsight, the punitive measures undertaken by the administration during his chairmanship seemed disproportionate, such as for instance, the arrests. “This was a law and order situation. Is it not heavy that a student stays in a hostel for 8-10 years, doesn’t pay fees… on whose money is he staying?” he replied.

A 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report pointed out that non completion of courses by students led to a loss of 11.83 crore to the exchequer. However, Chauhan’s conflation of an administrative issue — delayed batches are also the result of inadequate infrastructure like studios, missing or faulty equipment, say students — with slapping criminal charges on a group of protesting students, is precisely the sort of administrative heavy-handedness that the students were striking against in the first place.

National Award winning alumnus Paresh Kamdar says a shift in perspective is needed. “All along, students have been seen as a law and order problem, every time they raise a question on academics or management. So, the strategy of opposition is to break the resolve of the students. This isn’t the right way. Students need freedom to question. To challenge the existing order is an important aspect of art.”

For Nachimuthu now, participating the democratic process is a way of taking forward the resistance. “Last time, I didn’t vote. I thought it didn’t matter who came to power. Now that has changed.”

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