FTII: Pune’s discontent

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 04, 2016
‘Our stupid idealism’: The students say they were certain from day one that the government wouldn’t reverse its decision. Photo: Mandar Tannu

‘Our stupid idealism’: The students say they were certain from day one that the government wouldn’t reverse its decision. Photo: Mandar Tannu   -  The Hindu

The 139-day strike at the Film and Television Institute of India was the culmination of long-brewing disquiet

On a Saturday afternoon, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) campus in Pune looks like a deserted island. It’s hard to relate to this tranquil scenery. Images of the dramatic student protests, midnight arrests, and lathi charges that we saw for 139 days last year are still fresh in memory. I learn quickly that one mustn’t be fooled by this calm veneer. If you look closely, the scars of the battle begin to emerge. ‘Ghatak was here, Go back Chauhan’ and ‘Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad... Gajendra Chauhan?’ scream a few posters hanging from the trees. Though most of the anti-establishment graffiti from last year has been whitewashed, these surreptitiously re-emerged on the morning of January 7 — the day the new chairman, Gajendra Chauhan, whose questionable appointment set off the protests, visited the campus. I’m later told by students that they have mastered the art of putting up posters without being picked up by the CCTV cameras — probably one of the survival tactics this ordeal has taught them.

After the agitation was called off on October 28 last year, the students have slipped back into their routine life of classes and film-making. And yet, something within them has changed irreversibly. Vikas Urs, a prominent face of the strike, now knows what it is like to have his phones tapped, be followed by government officials, brave a prime-time television debate, and spend a night behind bars (he was one of the five students who were arrested on August 26). “I discovered a lot about myself. I’m a cinematographer, which is primarily a solitary job. But all through the strike I was representing the students both to the media and the government — things I had never done before. Everything I said had to have a certain gravitas. I also had to keep the students motivated through those months. It was a huge responsibility,” says the 31-year-old.

Having said that, the walls of FTII have seen and heard many cries of protest since its birth in 1968. The last major stand-off was in 2010 when the UPA government had plans to privatise the institution through a backdoor arrangement. Then too, demonstrations went on for six months, but didn’t match the severity or precision of this one. “We knew it was a long haul so we had to continue strategising and re-strategising. We had separate units to handle the press, the social media, and PR activities. Everyone on the campus was given some responsibility. Maybe because we make films, we know how to get people together and divide work well,” says Urs.

In many respects, the FTII is a unique academic institution. It’s an open, liberal space where the students are granted voting rights in the academic council, which gives them a say in important matters like deciding the syllabus. Its strength of 250 students includes a psychiatrist from the UK as well as someone who had to sell three acres to pay the tuition fee. Also, every year, an apolitical student body is elected as the official watchdog of the larger body. “We function like a welfare society here. We fight for the rights of the workers here, for ourselves, and for the mess,” says Harishankar Nachimuthu, a second-year direction student and the president of the student body. That the government could appoint a chairman without keeping them in the know is something that was never going to sit well with them.

“I remember having lunch in the boys’ mess when someone gave me the news. I didn’t have any idea who Gajendra Chauhan was. I’m from Tamil Nadu so I’ve not watched Mahabharat. Kill me if that’s a crime,” says Nachimuthu. “When I googled him, the first video I saw was of him dancing with Asaram Bapu. I thought ‘ Yeh nahi ho sakta’.” The final blow, and the one that made them halt classes, was discovering that Chauhan wasn’t the only surprise appointment. There were positions of power being handed out to others like Anagha Ghaisas and Shailesh Gupta — both infamous for their political propaganda films. “What if the government tomorrow says that every batch has to make one film that praises the prime minister?” asks Urs. “I remember Chauhan being asked on one of the TV debates about what would happen to a student if he made a film that was anti-Modi. He just said, ‘I will look into it at that time’,” adds Urs, to prove his point.

These arbitrary decisions notwithstanding, the FTII has a fair amount of systemic loopholes that the students were already grappling with. For starters, every course extends for almost two or three years beyond its official duration. An unrealistic syllabus and dated equipment are some of the other problems on their “huge list”. Yashasvi Mishra, another prominent face of the strike, and who recently graduated, remembers he was enrolled for the 2010 batch but his classes started eight months later because there weren’t enough rooms in the hostel to accommodate students. “During those months, there was no communication from them,” he says. Therefore, Chauhan’s appointment only added fuel to a discontent that was already smouldering.

In the end, say the students, it all comes down to a lack of respect for cinema as a serious discipline. “If you’re the dean of a medical college, you need certain qualifications. But cinema is taken too lightly and our understanding is limited to Bollywood,” says Nachimuthu, adding that they were certain from day one that the government wouldn’t reverse its decision. So what kept them going for 139 days? “Our stupid idealism,” they laugh.

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Published on March 04, 2016
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