The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune, which is the premier institute for learning film making and allied matters in Asia, has lately been on a slide. Filmmaking has been edged out by theatrics and the congeniality in the atmosphere of the campus by vexation. The students as well as the officials have also started trading charges and resorting to unprecedented and unconventional methods and means to prove their respective points. And the institute has now become a scene of action where battle lines have been clearly drawn and positions taken by these two warring factions.
With the ongoing battle of wits and nerves showing no signs of abating and neither side displaying willingness to take the extra step to resolve the issues to mutual satisfaction, no end to the acrimony and animosity is in sight. While the student representatives claim that they are ready to have talks with the government, they are insistent on their demands and have ruled out any compromise. The reputation of the FTII has become the first casualty, especially with some of the dubious goings on in the campus among the student community having been brought to light by the glaring attention that the developments have attracted.
The Outbreak of Trouble
Trouble started with the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as Chairman of the Institute. Students protested against this appointment, calling Chauhan a candidate lacking “vision and artistic credentials”. He was derided as someone incapable of leading an institute of the stature and prominence of FTII. His selection was attributed to his perceived proclivity to the RSS ideology and alleged proximity to the BJP leadership at the Centre. Selection of other candidates chosen to fill the vacancies in the FTII Society was also condemned on account of the candidates’ allegiance to the Saffron ideology. Casting aspersions on the appointments on account of alleged political overtones, the students have been vociferous and unequivocal about their demand for revocation of the appointments. They vented spleen and went on strike, which has been continuing since then, without letup.
Roping in Celebrity Support
Not wanting their protest against the government’s actions, described as unilateral and far from being objective, to go ignored or forgotten, the students roped in celebrity support and even staged a morcha in Delhi. An array of film industry personalities and politicos came to the fore to enjoy their two-minute of publicity in the process of expressing solidarity with the student community and their “horror” at the “insensitive” and “unimaginative” manner in which the matter was handled by the officials of the Institute and the Central government.
Meanwhile, the student representatives and alumni of the Institute claimed that they held “positive interactions” with their counterparts from quite a few universities across the country like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi, Jadhavpur University and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata as well as colleges in Ahmedabad and Pune, to enlist their support. Apparently, their idea was to explore the possibility of mobilizing sympathy and solidarity from the student bodies across the country to be used to force the authorities into acceding to their demands.
Entry of Politicos
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who had been touring States like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and UP to meet famine and drought-hit farmers for the purpose of vilifying the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Land Acquisition Bill and turning the farmers against it, readily joined the fray by visiting FTII on an invitation from the protestors and expressed his and his party’s solidarity with the students. He also seized the opportunity to wax eloquent about what he called the RSS ideology of promoting mediocrity in the country. This was followed by a retort by the Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh, who tweeted about the politicization of a students’ issue by the Congress Party. The student representatives also had a meeting with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, which failed to break the deadlock. At the meeting, Jaitley reportedly hinted at the eventual privatization of the FTII, but assured the students that they would continue to enjoy academic freedom.
The issue at the core of the movement became much larger and murkier by the day when incidents of some recalcitrant student leaders and elements with vested interest hanging around in the campus even years after completion of the duration of their courses were reported in the Main Stream Media (MSM) as well as the Social Media. Incidents of abuse of drugs and alcohol as well as involvement in political activities of the extreme kind on the part of these elements who were well past their student life and academic career were brought to light. These elements were reported to have a vested interest in prolonging the confrontation to make political mileage out of the resultant fluid situation.
The authorities of the Institute who wanted to cleanse the campus of such undesirable elements started issuing notice to them for vacating the accommodation on the campus occupied by them, on receipt of instructions from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Continued occupation by the hangers-on of the accommodation on the campus, which is heavily subsidized by the government, makes it difficult and even impossible for bonafide new students to get inexpensive accommodation on the campus. The newly-appointed Director of FTII, Prashant Pathrabe, announced the Institute’s decision to assess the incomplete diploma film projects of the 2008 batch with a view to weeding out the hangers-on.
This move was denounced as “irrational, unjustified and unfair” and was resisted by the affected students and their sympathizers among the students fraternity. They wanted the status-quo to continue as they feared that post-assessment those with incomplete projects may be declared failed and would have to leave the Institute. The students contested the admissibility of the decision to assess in the absence of the approval of the Institute’s academic council, which had allegedly been bypassed. The Ministry of I&B had earlier raised the question of non-completion of diploma film projects by the 2008 batch and non-conduct of convocation for the past 17 years that prompted the crackdown by the Institute.
The crackdown led to precipitation of an ugly incident with unpleasant fallout. The FTII Director reported on August 17 a case of his being manhandled, harassed and herded into his office when he tried to leave for home at the end of the day. He was then held captive for about seven hours. All the time, the unruly student mob raised slogans against him, shouted he was unfit for the post and demanded withdrawal of the decision to take up the incomplete diploma film projects by the 2008 batch for assessment. On receipt of an SOS, the Police rescued the Director from the unlawful custody of the students. The Police raided the campus around midnight. Although they had warrants against fifteen, they arrested only five students, all male, and booked cases against all of them. They were then charged with obstructing a public servant from performing his duty besides criminal intimidation, destruction of property, voluntarily causing hurt and rioting.
The arrested students were later let out on bail. The FTII Students Association has predictably put down the arrests as an act of spite arising out of an ulterior motive of weakening the students’ stir by ejecting some of its active participants. They have questioned the absence of the Registrar at the time of the arrests carried out at midnight, alleging that it drives home the point that the welfare or fate of the students figured nowhere in the scheme of things of the Institute’s administration. The youth wing of Shiv Sena and several student outfits in Pune have denounced the midnight arrests and stressed on the need for the government to find an amicable solution to the logjam.
Kejriwal Chips In
Whenever there is a controversy, can Arvind Kejriwal be far behind? He muscled his way through and reminded all concerned that he had a pebble or two of his own too to throw in and make the muddy waters still murkier. He received a delegation of FTII students in Delhi and assured them of his support. He went to the extent of offering them temporary space in Delhi where they could hold their classes and have their studies continue uninterrupted. He also offered to set up an institute in Delhi on a regular basis in the event of the fracas not being resolved by the Union Government to the satisfaction of the students. In short, he prodded the students to continue with their confrontationist attitude and not to scale down their demands or not to score a note of reconciliation while talking with the government!
On his part, Gajendra Chauhan denied all the charges against him and expressed regret that he was being denied an opportunity to perform despite the appointment made by the Union government. He said he was unable to comprehend why the students of the Institute were being judgmental without giving him a chance to prove himself. If given an opportunity, he will do everything possible to address their problems and grievances, Chauhan added.
Emphasizing that the FTII Chairman’s job profile is administrative in nature, Chauhan said he has ample experience to fit into this position as he was BJP’s national convener, culture, and had promoted ideology of the party through cultural activities. “I was also a part of the Cine & TV Artistes Association, first as an executive committee member and then as the vice-president for four years. Furthermore, I was its president for a year,” he elaborated.
Wondering why should the students be questioning his credentials and how was the FTII Chairman answerable to them, he asked, “Why should the FTII be heading towards a future where students get to decide who their teacher will be?”
Meanwhile, noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal said it was incorrect on the part of FTII students to assume that Gajendra Chauhan was incapable of leading FTII without knowing his exact plans. To find out his credentials, the students should first meet Chauhan, have a dialogue with him and understand his plans. They should protest only if they find that Chauhan is trying to impose his ideology.
Emphasizing that students should not get provoked by opinion makers at this point in time, Benegal said it is they who would be the losers in terms of studies and training. As such, there is no point in politicizing the issue further, he pointed out.
Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of their demands, the way students have gone about politicizing the issue speaks volume about their deplorable attitude and confrontationist approach concerning the core issue involved. Thus, a local issue has got blown out of proportions! In other words, a storm, nay, a tsunami in a teacup! Was it the idea of the students to apprise the authorities of their genuine grievances for possible redressal or to bring a mighty government to its knees? If it was all about genuine grievances and possible redressal, then the motions they have gone through hardly constitute the right way. If, on the other hand, the idea was to enact a David versus Goliath docu-drama in true filmy style, the protesting students should be congratulated for attempting a great job. But, then, that was exactly what Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal and the sundry politicos had done when they cheered up and feted the protestors. Wasn’t it? A rather nice script and stellar enactment! How exactly the student community has benefited from allowing politicization of their movement, with the exception of the hangers-on and the ones with the ulterior motive of making political mileage out of the protests, is for the student community to ponder over.
Authorities to Act
As regards the authorities, where do they stand? It is high time the Institute’s administrative authorities took the instructions of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry seriously and initiated appropriate actions to clear up the backlog of diploma film projects. It is equally important to clear up the mess of the hangers-on who seem to be out on the campus for a good time with their inadmissible behaviour and illegal activities, making conditions increasingly difficult for bonafide students. Filmmaking should be allowed to take once again its rightful place, which currently seems to have been replaced by theatrics.
Muddling by the Media
On their part, the self-proclaimed liberal thinkers and self-styled secular media had gone gaga over the ugly developments and their unpleasant fallout. They went to town with the story that the government’s “high-handed” action in the matter of appointments was on account of its susceptibility to instructions from the RSS. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to refute the imputation as it is for the umpteenth time that the government’s detractors had come up with the sensational invention that the ubiquitous RSS hand was behind the decision-making process of the BJP-led NDA government!
Here it needs to be noted that the process of selection of candidates for appointment and ensuring selection of the best candidates is a matter for objective discussion among all the parties and stakeholders concerned. However, deriding an appointment by branding it an act of rewarding of a party loyalist is tantamount to a wanton and reckless act reflective of irresponsible behaviour and absence of objectivity on the part of the critique. As Gajendra Chauhan has rightly pointed out, career achievement cannot be the sole criterion for appointment to such posts.
For that matter, even if every authority and official of FTII were a carefully handpicked dye-in-the-wool loyalist of RSS or BJP, how would that result in the dreaded saffronization of the Institute? So long as the students enjoy academic freedom to craft the kind of films they aspire to make, how would the selection of officials affect their presentation? The FTII is no Censor Board! Nor is it an institution for indoctrination. And, on a different note, party loyalists do not necessarily have to be starved of consideration for appointments so long as the government takes care to act by the laid-down and established norms!
Furthermore, the Indian Constitution gives everyone the freedom to have a political affiliation of his liking. Hence, singling out Gajendra Chauhan saying he has been hired because of his political affiliation does not cut much ice. And if one looks back, FTII Chairman has always been appointed by the Union government. In other words, it is always the political party in power that gets to decide who would be the FTII Chairman.
Moreover, the latter is only a figurative head because ultimately the FTII Society is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. As such, it enjoys full functional autonomy, and all its policies are determined by the Governing Council. So what exactly is bothering the students so much is something that is difficult to comprehend. This leads one to conclude that the striking FTII students are either making reckless charges or they are being misled by some vested interests keen to cash in at their expense in a bid to create problems for the Central government.