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Feature || FTII, Presidency & The Culture of Dissent

The FTII entrance

Expressing dissent, voicing one’s dissatisfaction has not only been a part and parcel of democracy but one of the very foundations of its existence. Throughout history, instances such as those in France circa 1968 or Bangladesh (Shahbag) only a year ago have consolidated the notion that agitations, especially those led by students, have often led to grand historical arcs that have redefined the very flow of time.

India, like any other proud democratic nation that has ensured the liberty of thought and its expression, has had her fair share of agitation led by forces of youth who have recently been initiated to concepts and ideals that are as clearly defined on paper as they are vague in effect.

The inspiration to bring about a positive change, whether or not fostered by a certain political belief or backed by political factions of myriad colours and motives, is the very benchmark of a conscious generation that is poised to become a driving force in leading the nation towards a brighter future.

It is, therefore, utterly deplorable when representatives of the country’s dissenting youth are hauled and incarcerated under the guise of preserving law and order.

A few of the country’s most revered educational institutions including the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Jadavpur University in Kolkata and more recently, The Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, have seen protests led by students to protect the interests of their own, a right that cannot be denied as a matter of principle, let alone the constitution.

Gajendra Chauhan in Mahabharata

The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of FTII has been debated & dissected all over the media, some castigating the students for not giving the man a due chance while others condemning the appointment of Chauhan with violent veracity, whose only notable appearance as an actor has been his stint as Dharamraaj Yudhisthira in B.R. Chopra’s popular ‘Mahabharata’ series on Doordarshan during the late-eighties. Of course, his acting career did not end there and he went on to “act” in a string of C-movies which did not do much to protect his Dharamraaj (The Lord of Principle) image.

It is hard to fathom why his suitability of appointment is even a subject of contention. As ludicrous as it would be to appoint a Honey Singh at a Sangeet Research Academy or Dhrupad Kendra Bhopal, or making Chetan Bhagat the overseer of (not an IIM) the JNU department of English Literature, so is Chauhan’s presence a glaring anomaly at an institute like the FTII, which has had the distinction of producing such stalwarts of Indian cinema as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Om Puri or a Shabana Azmi.

An argument is often forwarded questioning whether or not the learners have the right to choose who oversees their learning process. It is safe to say that for a particular individual, the supreme determinant of his/her suitability is whether the person commands the respect of the body he is poised to oversee. Chauhan, for reasons that are too obvious to count, fails miserably on this front.

The government’s unrelenting stand in this regard is merely an example of the careless high-handedness of a political outfit that has come to power riding a nearly unanimous wave of public approval. The unfortunate tendency of power shooting to the head is apparent in the manner how the government absolutely refuses to re-evaluate its decision, deciding to strike back instead by arresting four agitating students from the Pune campus in the dead of the night.

Indian intelligentsia, that is constituted not only of those in the public sphere teaching or dabbling in the arts or students empathizing with their kin but the millions of thinking minds across the nation who are rightfully irate at such a blatant disregard of the people in power for the basic rights of individuals.

Refusing to pay heed to the reasons of the community, the government chose to retort by introducing base diversionary tactics, bringing into question the integrity of the students and accusing them of wasting ‘people’s money’ by highlighting the disparity of government funding between FTII and other premium centres of excellence.

Thus followed the hasty order of student evaluation which predictably escalated the scale of protests, resulting in the final act of atrocity on Monday midnight, August the 18th.

A poster of one of the films in which Gajendra Chauhan featured post-Mahabharata

As the FTII issue rages on in Maharashtra, the West Bengal state government negotiates with a dissenting body of students at the Presidency University who seemingly took a cue from their FTII counterparts to dig up a two year old issue which, although valid, is facing tough scrutiny from a large portion of the alumni, media and the students alike due to its timing and listless string of demonstrations. Taking centrestage is the issue of vandalism and the mode of dissent of a perceived ‘outsider’ who came to the institute from a show of solidarity with the FTII movement, for which he put on a brassiere and shorts with film rolls wrapped around his undergarments – an obvious allusion to Chauhan’s acting credits post-Mahabharata.

This stunt bore no relation to the Presidency protests but the photograph of the bearded man in a brassiere entering the Presidency premises was circulated all over the media like hot cake, further alienating the protesters from the general public. The dissenter himself gave a half baked explanation of the entire incident over Facebook before deactivating his account, citing his extraordinary academic credentials as a ‘certificate of character’. It would have helped if he stood by his actions instead of going underground and declaring that he is off to a university in the US for higher studies.

However, one needs to turn back only a few months to revisit a student movement that took the entire city by storm. The Central Government ought to take a leaf out of the State’s book regarding the manner in which they handled the #HokKolorob movement at the Jadavpur University, relenting after the usual stubborn stance and sacking a Vice-Chancellor who had the gall to call the cops upon dissenting students and have them mercilessly thrashed all over the campus, again in the dead of the night.

Let us hope that the Central Government comes to its senses by taking a sensible stance on the FTII issue without further delay. The prompt exoneration of the arrested students who are out on bail and finding a suitable person who will take over the responsibilities of Chauhan must be a priority to usher in the ‘Achhe din’ that was promised. That is why the country voted for them, is it not? []

UPDATE: As of the first week of October, the government has attempted to placate rising tempers by naming eminent filmmaker and FTII alumnus Rajkumar Hirani as the head of the Academic Council. However, students were not dissuaded by this consolatory gesture and continued their agitation to oust Chauhan. The government and the students have convened thrice to seek an impasse in the matter. Negotiations continue.

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015