Lage Raho FTII: Resisting Saffronisation

The seventh of January 2016 should have been a regular day in the campus of the Film and Television Intitute of India except that it was the day when the government appointed FTII society was to have its first meeting and this was being chaired by the famed Yudhisthir of the current regime, Gajendra Chauhan. [1]

Chauhan’s entry into the campus and assumption of his post as chaiman happened despite a long struggle, a struggle which got support from a cross-section of people including mainstream and independent filmmakers, students from across the country, academicians, intellectuals, activists and artists. The protest of the students of FTII was against the partisan appointment of Gajendra Chauahan and others in the FTII society, the apex body which runs the institute.

While we were getting ready to protest, we were shocked to see the coronation like arrangements being made by the administration to welcome Gajendra Chauahan. In the past, the occasion of chairman joining the institute has never been a grand affair. But this time, the administration felt more like a unit of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) welcoming the ‘chief’.

In a government institute which is supposed to be secular in its affairs. Gajendra Chauhan was anointed with a tilak and aarti at the gate. On public money, the Institute had hired around 20 dhol pathaks (traditional dhol players). It seemed that the institute had taken direct inspiration from the recently released Bajirao Mastani: Chauhan was treated like the Peshava, the king who emerged victorious from the battle !

As worrying as the mode of welcome was the enthusiastic support Chauhan received from the FTII staff and the silence of many of the teachers to these developments. It is not as if all of them are avid supporters of the ideology behind the current regime but a combination of pragmatism and fear of the ‘repercussions’ were enough to keep everybody quiet and welcome Gajendra Chauhan.  As ‘well wishers’,  they kept advising us, as they had done during the 139 day-long strike that his proximity with the powers that be can deliver great ‘results’ for the Institute and we must utilize that. Indeed for many, it was ‘practical’ to go along with his entry rather than oppose it now that the strike of the students had ended.

In such atmosphere, one could not help but recall the famous slogan from the France of 1968, ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible’. In a world, guided by practical concerns it has become important to be ideal and fight for the impossible. To shed light on the dangerous (possible things) happening around us and to underline the importance of the ‘impossible.’

As we came out on the street to protest Gajendra Chauhan’s entry and that of others into the campus, we knew there would be all sorts of ‘arrangements’ made to stop us. But the levels of bandobast and the severity of police action shocked us. We had just started to shout slogans when police without warning started beating and pushing us. Several of us were thrown down on the concrete thoroughfare. One student was isolated, surrounded and brutally beaten. Women students were mishandled by male policemen. And our constant question, ‘why’ ?’ was answered with more blows from the lathi.

After detaining 30 students and blocking the entry of rest to their own campus, the coronation ceremony began. It had all the trappings of a religious ceremony. Then the meeting of the FTII society formally began. At the meeting, there was no mention of the students, the prime stakeholders who were sitting in jail. Persons of note, including Rajkumar Hirani, famed for his creative, cinematic propagation of the word Gandhigiri participated. At this meeting, the violent police behaviour with students moments before, just outside, did not figure. For Hirani and other members, obviously, more than any kind of giri, it was the 300 crores which the film had drawn from the ‘market’ that was important; and to keep making such crores, opportune silence was a pre-requisite when the critical moment came.

One of the first tasks of the FTII society on January 7, 2016, was to choose Governing council (GC) members. The members of this body, the GC, meets more regularly and is the sole body which takes and validates all academic and administrative decisions of the institute. In its very first task, the outcome of this meeting confirmed our worst fears.

The FTII society chose Narendra Pathak as one of the members of GC.  Narendra Pathak is a man who in the long run is perhaps more dangerous to the Institute than even Gajendra Chauan. He has no relation at all with the field of cinema or other artistic fields. He is presently, the principal of  SK Somaiya Vinay Mandir, High school and Junior college. He was chosen in the society under the category of ‘ a person of eminence’.

What makes him the person of eminence is not his teaching skills. More qualified persons from the field of teaching are available. His ‘actions’ as the ex-president of ABVP Maharashtra are a critical aspect in his bio-data that makes him the man of choice, for the present regime. During his tenure as president ABVP, he had ‘successfully’ stopped film screenings at various places in Pune.

The screening of Red Ant Dream and Jashn E Azadi was cancelled at Symbiosis Institute of Media after the threat from ABVP.  Another private college refused to screen Final Solutions, a film by Rakesh Sharma on Gujrat pogram terming it as 'controversial' after ABVP threatened to vandalise the space.

ABVP also threatened colleges who invited ‘anti-nationals’ like Binayak Sen and stopped Seminars which had words like Kashmir, communal violence and Hindutva. An entire session on Kashmir in a seminar organised by liberal arts department of Symbiosis University was cancelled due to the ABVP threat. He could do so even though his party was not in power either at the centre or in Maharashtra. He could successfully threaten organisers of such events and undemocratically threaten and stop these events from taking place.

When members of his organization beat up students of the FTII for screening Anand Patwardhan’sJai Bhim Comrade, it was Narendra Pathak who conveniently dubbed them ‘Naxalites’ and ‘anti-national’. After being nominated to the GC of the Society of a Film School, his first reaction to the media was that it is time for a new thought process to start at FTII and if students don’t behave they will be taught a lesson in ‘nationalism’ by him and other members of the ABVP. An obviously violent threat!

During the last five years, we have actively tried to show all kind of films at FTII and we have resisted the ABVP’s plan to vandalise or threaten us on campus, by mobilising the students and holding protests. In the city of Pune, the FTII was the last bastion so to speak, an Institute which did not pay heed to the diktats and sermons of the ABVP read the RSS.

Hence, clearly the regime has thought closely and carefully, by grabbing this opportunity to put it in a powerful position and place, a person against whom students of the FTII had protested within the Institute. An implicit message was being conveyed to students: fall in line like in all other Institutes or else….. This process reached completion and culmination on  January 7, 2016 when Pathak was appointed to the GC without any opposition from other members.

As the day progressed and we were detained at the police station without food, the second important agenda came up at the meeting: ‘Security’. The latest buzz word to punish and kill all kinds of dissent. For an institute which had seen a successful 139-day students’ strike, it surely was the ‘lack of security and discipline’ that ‘allowed’ the protests. This had to be corrected.

In its 55 years of history, FTII has surprisingly remained a very liberal campus, independent of what’s happening around the country. There are no hostel timings for the students and they can enter and exit the Institute at any time. Not just that, there are no restrictions on entry of male students to the hostel of female students and vice versa. For those who think this is too much freedom, it must be emphasised that no great catastrophe has happened till now. However, now, post January 7, 2016, the authorities have decreed that t it should not remain that island of autonomy and creativity and ‘a new thought process’ should start.

So elaborate security arrangements have been proposed which have included restrictions on entry and exit from campus between 11pm to 5 am; the refusal of entry if students were found with objectionable items, which include alchohol; and ‘other steps’ depending on the judgment made by the persons in authority; no entry of ex-students without the permission of either the Director or the Registrar and many more such restricting ‘decrees.’ In the words of the Director ‘it was important to discipline the students’.

We had just started to shout slogans when police without warning started beating and pushing us. Several of us were thrown down on the concrete thoroughfare. One student was isolated, surrounded and brutally beaten. Women students were mishandled by male policemen. And our constant question, ‘why’ ?’ was answered with more blows from the lathi.

Thankfully, due to the intervention of one GC member and the new chairman, Gajendra Chauhan’s first appearance reticence, the proposals were not passed. These would wait for another GC meeting, after the media attention has been subdued. We got that day what we  had imagined. In its very first meeting, the GC had made us realise that the protest must go on else a bleak future awaits us.

The FTII now resembled a microcosm of the whole nation and not the island look that it wore before the present regime assumed power. This was a change.

We witnessed, first hand, again that fascism and saffronisation are not rhetorical and vague terms but the actual, lived political reality of today.

We learned, and experienced, first hand, what happens when a government who is headed by a man who prides himself on being ruthless stops listening to valid feedback from the people.

We learned and experienced, first hand, how the state machinery can and is used most violently to crush acts of protest and dissent.

Most importantly, we also experienced how it is the silent majority that gives rise (and legitimacy) to such regimes.  A majority which believes in being pragmatic, frustrated by the present and in constant anticipation of a bright future which they feel the ruler will give to them on platter; a pessimists’ look towards protest and democracy in general; viewing discipline and tough authority as the answer to all ills. 

Most of the staff of the FTII behaved exactly like that. They were or are not the loyal soldiers of Hindutva but became or have become a part of its project unconsciously. 

This is what was truly scary about when the Modi government came to power. The happenings at FTII have brought close home the reality.

 By the night of January 7, Gajendra Chauhan was gone and we were released from police detention. The ‘well wishers’ were back in action, just as they were during the strike. They were again spewing the same old advice: how protest, politics, police and court were not the things or place(s) for students. That how a ‘bright future’ awaits us and we should concentrate on ‘making it big’. In the imagined idea of an ideal middle class Indian the ‘dirty’ business of politics should be left to ‘dirty’ people – workers, farmers, Dalits and Muslims. Not us, the light bearers of a developing India. If we don’t leave this ‘protest business’ alone, the dirt will come back to haunt us and getting a visa to the dreamland called America will be a huge problem. So we must use our common sense and behave.

But there were glimmers of hope. Students are still not ‘tired’ and the ‘common sense’ was and is in short supply. Already plans are being made about the future course of protest. 

I met a first year student late into the night that day; he was recalling the advise given to him by his teacher ‘ to concentrate on his career’. His answer was, ‘Without learning what will I do with a career?’ I asked him that what had kept him going in the last 200 days. (Since his was a one year course and traditionally in a short course students are much more concerned about moving out and getting a job). His reply was humbling. He said that if it was just one Gajendra Chauhan, he perhaps would not have protested. But he saw what was happening at FTII as just one small part of what this Government is unleashing on society.  He also confessed to me, his first ‘big mistake’, as he called it: Only 18 months back he had voted for Mr. Modi and he was feeling guilty for doing so.

These are mature statements coming from a ‘fresh’ batch of students who had previously voted for Modi but could see the danger of the implication(s) of this regime for society. They are willing to fight it out not just within FTII but outside as well. That, in a nutshell, are the real gains of the FTII movement. And that is why we are ‘being realistic and demanding the impossible’.

(The writer is a recent graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune with a PG Diploma in Editing, 2009 and also former General Secretary of FTII Students' Association)


[1] Patwardhan pointed out the larger gameplan with few instances of other appointments by the very same government, the most recent one being the selection of Mukesh Khanna —who has also essayed the character of Bhishma in the televised Mahabharata but is more popular as Shaktimaan, India's homegrown superhero in the eponymous Doordarshan serial — as the chairman of the Children's Film Society of India. "Now, there you have Shaktimaan and here we have Yudhisthir. And, god knows, there might be some Krishna somewhere in the future," he seemed to jest. But the import of his message was clear: Both Khanna and Chauhan are staunch supporters of Asaram Bapu. "Chauhan has also acted in soft porn movies and I am not sure if this served as a qualification for his appointment as the chairman," Patwardhan stressed, the sarcasm now obvious.



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