( Surabhi is a documentary filmmaker and FTII alumnus. Here, she reflects on what FTII means to her; what stands threatened by the BJP Government’s choice of political appointees to head the FTII; and what connects the present FTII strike with the many strikes and agitations by FTII students in the past.)
The students of the Film and Television Institute in India have been on an indefinite strike since 12th June 2015.
A new Governing Council had been put into place by the government. Students had to google the name of Mr. Gajendra Chouhan who has been appointed as the chairman. No one had heard of him. They found that he has been an actor who has worked in many serials and films in his 20-30 year career including the one recognisable role of Yudhishtir in the popular serial, Mahabharat. Apart from being an actor he was an office bearer of the Cine and Television Actors Association. Most importantly, he is an active BJP member who was seen campaigning in Haryana during the elections last year. This was the person appointed to create a vision for this 55 year old institute.
A cursory survey of the track record of past luminaries who have adorned this chair suggests that exceptional filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrushnan and Saeed Mirza were chosen for their understanding of cinema as art. It is not as if the Institute has never had a connection with those from mainstream cinema; Mahesh Bhatt and Vinod Khanna have both been chairpersons. U.G Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad are important writers whose vision was seen as important to guide students who are practitioners of cinema existing within a specific cultural ethos.
Their qualifications notwithstanding, many of these chairpersons have had to face agitations by students for the academic or policy changes that they brought in. It is not as if the students, the institute or the ministry would be able to define that perfect candidate who could have a productive stint as Chairperson. Why then has there been a roar of protests from all quarters about the appointment of Chouhan? His appointment indicates a clear shift in how the ministry sees this institute.
Here is a person who is at great pains to suggest that he will learn on the job and that he does not come with a vision. He has said in every interview that there is a difference between his ‘reel’ life and his ‘real’ life. He has been pleading for an assessment of the latter rather than the former in evaluating his candidacy. This is an astonishing claim for someone who has spent a life in cinema and television. He is suggesting that his work as a party foot soldier or as administrator of the Cine and Television Artist Association is the only thing that matters, not his work as an actor in cinema. An administrator of a trade union and a campaign activist is the person chosen to lead the premier film institute of India. His “real” life shows no interest in art and culture, neither in academics. The film institute shall be headed by someone who negotiates the wages of actors and is willing to work to keep the BJP in power. The ministry has made its position clear in its choice of the Chairman- it has scant regard for cinema as an integral part of our culture.
This is not a careless act on the part of the government. Along with Mr. Chouhan there are 5 people who have been appointed on the GC who have a tenuous connection to cinema. They have made propaganda films for the BJP. 4 of them are Pune based and one of them Mr. Narendra Pathak has been the Maharashtra State President of the ABVP.
In 2013, ABVP activists had attacked a few FTII students when they organised a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade followed by a performance of the Kabir Kala Manch. Students were accused of being naxalites since they had invited the Kabir Kala Manch. They were asked to say Jai Narendra Modi to prove they were not naxalites. 4-5 students were beaten and had to be taken to the hospital for urgent medical attention. Bringing the state president of the ABVP as part of the Governing Council even while this incident is fresh in the minds of the students as well as Pune is an unambiguous way to intimidate the student community.
The 4 appointees have been making statements on a daily basis about how they want to bring in nationalist feelings in the students and lay emphasis on the greatness of India.
This is unprecedented. Appointees to the Governing Council wanting to shape a narrow vision and aesthetic on campus is perhaps the one blow that could destroy FTII. This is an exercise in raw politics, a brazen act of redefining the objectives of the institution.
FTII has been beset with strikes and agitations in its 55 years. From the outside it might be seen as a bunch of privileged students who are restless, not pragmatic, and cushioned in a little bubble agitating for more privileges.
I did feel privileged when I was a student on campus two decades ago. The privilege did not come from the fact that I was subsidised by the government. The privilege came from the awareness that I was in a unique institution. I was a south Bombay college student who had seen Ghatak’s films because of the elitist college I went to, but I was discussing Ghatak with fellow students who saw his works in a film society in their village in Kerala or with batchmates who had never seen Ghatak before but had worked in the theatre in their small town and could draw parallels. The institute was committed to providing me many new ways of “seeing” Ghatak or other masters of cinema.
The training we would undergo was unique and precious. Our mind was crowded with cinemas from across the world while we urged each other to tell stories of our childhood and our experiences. Our faculty helped us with the basic tools and tolerated our arrogance in twisting and turning the tools to make a fresh start. Each of us tried to redefine the shot, the cut, sound, light, time and space. No one was penalised for reinventing the wheel over and over again. We defined our terms and immersed ourselves in our work.
This institution allowed me to work on a small film of a colleague who was trying to express his feelings of growing up in Assam at the time of violent struggles while watching a film in the evening made by an East European filmmaker struggling against censorship. I would watch a batch mate try and recreate a tea shop from his village in Kerala in one corner of our campus while another group member shot her film about a young woman looking for a place to pee in the city. The films were awkward, tentative, fluid. Each of our exercises had us groping, shifting, searching for our own language, our own style. Here we were pulling hair over what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it while setting up lights in what used to be the famous Prabhat studio.
The shadow of the mainstream film industry was omnipresent yet we had the privilege of making a dance form our only reference point, or a film from Argentina or a poem by a dalit poet. As students we could boldly say, what bollywood, who mainstream. The institute actively created a bubble for us to soak ourselves in an idea of culture and cinema that was being scripted anew by each and every one of us. The institute was committed to the idea of letting us lose our way. Our lives depended on the manner in which light flickered 24 frames a second on the image and sound we were trying to create by dipping deep into our personal histories and our collective consciousness. The institute did not churn out students to fit into this sector or that stream.
Political appointments do not come as a surprise. Every government is guilty of this. The difference here is that they have put together a team that is invested in the narrowest possible idea of what is culture and what are the possibilities of cinema.
Moreover, the design is to distort the very idea of what this place means in our cultural and political landscape. The bid to standardise thought and practice on campus seems to be motivating the current appointees.
In the mid 90s, in the excitement of the liberalisation of the economy there was an attempt to change the nature of the institute. We were students then and we found a change in the academic structure that envisioned FTII to be a place that imparts skills and would churn out professionals rather than “failed” artists and thinkers who have no place in the market. Short term courses were introduced, the duration of the three year course was cut to two, the syllabus cleaned up to make it activity driven. We agitated, garnered support from alumni and from academics and managed to prevent FTII from becoming a polytechnic.
The current crisis resonates with the agitation in the mid 90s. In both instances it is the idea of what cinema should do and how students should practice it that is the moot point. Students are desperately trying to protect the idea that this space must necessarily speak in many tongues and allow for a many-headed idea of cinema.
The current agitation has been able to connect with students and groups across the country. This is significant. In one year we have seen the perversion of many academic institutions. The most outrageous was the appointment, as ICHR chairperson, of a historian who has never published in a peer-reviewed journal and who is unable to make evident his methodology, and whose main project seems to be to prove the historicity of Hindu epics like the Mahabharat. The IIT chairman and eminent scientist Dr. Anil Kakodkar quit allegedly because of the director appointed by the HRD ministry. Different ministries seem to be running rough shod over its own institutions in an attempt to keep them mediocre and subservient to the ideology of the ruling party.
FTII students have decided to stand up and protect the institute from becoming an outpost of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry churning out propaganda films alongside films that are committed to only the commerce and business of filmmaking.
Many slogans painted on the roads and the walls of the buildings on campus ridicule the work of Mr. Chouhan or make this cherished place a holy space that should not be desecrated. I personally refuse to become a Brahmin protecting my temple from C grade filmmakers or actors. I wholeheartedly stand by the painting of Satyajit Ray’s little Apu with a painted moustache holding up a 35 mm camera like a gun with the word STRIKE stencilled in the corner. That is what FTII allows us, to each find our own way of making cinema provoke. All of us who are alive to the throbbing drumbeats of our rich culture need to fight with all our might for the right to provoke.