Gajendra Chauhan’s controversial appointment as FTII chairman has been roundly criticized by reputed film personalities. Did he get the job because of his RSS-BJP links?
Prachi Bari in Pune
What began as a silent protest from the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) against the appointment of television actor Gajendra Chauhan for the post of the Chairman of FTII has now become a question of whether Pune will end up losing the institute forever or whether it will be handed over to Bollywood to run. That would be most unfortunate since the institution, revered by those in cinema and intellectuals of all hues, has come to symbolize a facet of modern Indian culture that has resisted commercialization and found its place in world cinema. It is also the pride of Pune.
What is the FTII Society?
The FTII functions as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, and is registered under the Societies’ Registration Act of 1860.
The FTII Society is headed by a president who is a well-known personality from film and television, arts or academics. The Governing Council (GC) is constituted by election from among the members of the Society. The GC, as the apex body of the FTII, is responsible for making all major policy decisions of the Institute in consonance with its aims and objectives.
The president of the society also functions as the chairman of each of the bodies, GC, the AC and the SFC. Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mahesh Bhatt, Girish Karnad, Vinod Khanna and Prof U R Ananthamurthy have served as the chairman of the GC.
The I&B ministry’s response to the student protests has been to hold out a threat. It has suggested that the government is looking at shifting the ownership of the institute to Bollywood or a shutdown. The ministry is reportedly relying on the report of the Expenditure Reforms Commission, appointed in 2000 and headed by former finance secretary KP Geetha Krishnan. It had suggested handing over the institute to the film industry. The report also pointed out that the average cost of education for an FTII student funded by the state is in excess of `10 lakh per year and is a huge financial burden.
Reacting to reports, the students say that the I&B ministry was trying to deflect attention from the original issue of the arbitrary appointment of Chauhan through selective statements. “During our meeting, neither the minister nor the secretary addressed the appointments’ issue even once. They simply reiterated the earlier promises of making the institute into one of national excellence but with no timeline. Now, they are quoting the apparent investment made on each student in terms of infrastructure and technology which simply is like putting a price on culture and art,” says a student.
The appointment of Chauhan as FTII chairman has upset the students as well as many in the film industry. The serene FTII campus is boiling with rage and as the strike crosses a month, leading lights of the film industry—Jahnu Barua, Pallavi Joshi and Santosh Sivan—have resigned from their post as members of the FTII society. Even mainstream Bollywood stars are waking up to support the students.
Actor Ranbir Kapoor had this to say: “The appointment of the new FTII chairman has gone against the students’ wishes. I don’t think what the students are asking for is illogical; they are not asking for the moon. They are just asking for a fair chance, a fair opportunity, a good faculty, and a good syllabus. People look at the FTII graduates with so much respect.”
Meanwhile, student representatives have also met officials of the I&B ministry in Delhi. But they came back dejected describing the talks as “inconclusive and unsatisfactory.” In fact, the FTII’s Students Association (FSA) said that the agitation that started on June 12 will continue. “For us, this institution is what we believe in.
As artists, as creators of art, this institution has to retain its essence, which produced Oscar and national award winners like Resul Pookutty and Santosh Sivan. Thrusting a person (like Chauhan) whose only claim to fame is acting in a mythological series almost amounts to condemning this institution to death,” says Ajayan Adat, a sound engineering student at the FTII.
With the protest gathering steam, film personalities like Kiran Rao, Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah have come out to back the protesting students. Even Anupam Kher, a known BJP supporter, has candidly admitted on TV that Chauhan was a bad choice for the top job in FTII.
The FSA maintains that it will continue its protest till Chauhan is replaced by a more suitable candidate. Chauhan was picked ahead of lyricist Gulzar and filmmakers Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who were shortlisted by the ministry for the chairman’s post. Ever since his name was announced, FTII students have boycotted theory classes, practicals and diploma film work.
They have expressed their disapproval through graffiti on the walls, which read: “Gajendra resign and leave”, “Dharmaraj Yudhishthir? No Way!”, “Politics or FTII, both can’t go together”. As the protest escalated, a group of 70-80 students went from office to office forcing officials to stop work. Harikrishnan Nachimuthu, who heads the students union, said they will intensify the protests if the appointment is not revoked.
The students have questioned Chauhan’s “creative credentials” and whether he has the vision to guide the institute, earlier helmed by internationally renowned luminaries like Girish Karnad, UR Ananthamurthy and Shyam Benegal. Many view the appointment as an attempt by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to foist its right-wing agenda upon the institute.
Apart from Chauhan’s appointment, students and progressive filmmakers are upset with the choice of the reconstituted FTII panel, where four of the eight are RSS propagandists.
These include Anagha Ghaisas, who has made documentary films on PM Narendra Modi; Narendra Pathak, a former president of the Maharashtra ABVP; Pranjlal Saikia, an office bearer of an RSS-linked organisation; and Rahul Solapurkar, closely associated with the BJP.
The center, as of now, wants to brazen it out. The thinking is that it would be a loss of face if Chauhan is replaced. The controversy has already gathered momentum with top stars and filmmakers coming out in support of the students.
Those defending Chauhan have very little to say in his defence other than point out that he has acted in several films and TV serials. Their other plea is that he should be given a chance since the FTII chairman’s job is purely administrative.
This is an argument few will buy since the person who heads the FTII will have to deal with international film-makers and actors. Chauhan has not helped his case by declaring that “anything which sells is good cinema.” He has also admitted that he has never attended an international film festival and is not well versed with world cinema.
Does that qualify him to head the FTII? The consensus is that he does not. But will the government hear the voice of reason?