Questionable appointments apart, the Film and Television Institute of India has long-standing administrative problems that must also be addressed.

If Hamlet’s friends, Marcellus and Horatio, drifted out of Shakespeare’s pages today, they would probably find themselves on the strike-plagued campus of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune rather than on the ramparts of gloomy Elsinore castle. And they would remark: ‘Something is rotten in the state of FTII’.

Notwithstanding the latest storm over the appointment of the so-called ‘Bharatiya Janata Party man’ Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute’s governing council, the smooth functioning of India’s elite centre for film education has always been blighted. In fact, the FTII has witnessed nearly 40 strikes since its inception in 1961. The ‘strike-culture’, already in vogue from the mid-1970s, grew particularly acute in the 90s, when students incessantly squabbled over the academic and administrative facets of the FTII.

A 100-day protest in 1991, caused by fractious disputes over the nature of course structure, is especially memorable. This was followed by a major strike in April 1996 when the then Chairman, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, introduced a revised syllabus, shortening the duration of all specialisations from three to two years, besides introducing new courses in a bid to conform the institute to modern filmmaking standards.

However, at the time, students, backed by their teachers, vehemently protested against the alleged ‘course dilution’, which was supposedly inimical to the art of cinema. After further deliberations by a review committee, a new syllabus, unanimously green-lighted by both the academic and the governing council, was introduced in 2000, only to have the students strike again in September that year.

Students, however, demur. “It is unfair to cast the students as stereotypical villains with a passion to strike,” Jabeen Merchant, an eminent alumna and one of the authors of the key P.K. Nair Committee’s report on the future of FTII, said.

According to Ms. Merchant, the nub of the problem is that the government-aided FTII has often functioned on the whims of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) — reflected in the questionable appointments to the FTII Society. “Even then, the president is usually chosen with care, irrespective of the party in power at the Centre. This is what makes this strike different,” she observes.

A questionable appointment

The reason for choosing Mr. Chauhan, clouded in secrecy, was finally revealed on July 10 when the Minister of State for I&B, Rajyavardhan Rathore, said they needed a full-time chairperson for the institute. Not just that, the Minister was reportedly persuaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to push Mr. Chauhan’s candidature. The choice of a man of stature, as the students now demand, implies a certain independence of thought and action, besides an understanding of cinema that goes beyond acting.

Mr. Chauhan, whose career summit is his portrayal of the Pandava Yudhisthir in B.R. Chopra’s ‘Mahabharat’ TV series, has appeared in numerous B-grade TV soaps and Bollywood films. Compare this to a list of the institute’s former heads, which reads like a who’s who of Indian cinema — Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Akhtar Mirza. Mr. Chauhan’s nomination has been met with near-universal condemnation.

More disturbing than the appointment is the reconstitution of the FTII panel by the Centre, where four of the eight members are RSS propagandists, one of whose artistic qualification involves shooting documentary propaganda for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaigns. It is these appointments that raise serious questions about the direction the government wants to give to the institute. “Authorities think that societies are adornments with little consequence to the academic discourse and that they can install anybody they like. This is in blatant contradiction to the laws and spirit that defines the role of the FTII President and the governing council,” said Vikas Urs, spokesman of the present FTII Students’ Association (FSA).

Meanwhile, Mr. Chauhan strenuously defends his candidacy, saying he is aware of the problems plaguing FTII and that he is determined to restore to it its lost prestige. “I am not saying my artistic capabilities match those of the luminaries with whom I am being constantly compared. But for two decades now, I have been in the administration of the Cine and TV Artists Association of Mumbai. So, how can my detractors claim I am devoid of any experience,” he asks. Students must stop “meddling in politics,” he stresses. “I am broadly aware of the academic backlogs and the dire need for upgrading standards. With a number of serious problems to be dealt with, I appeal to the students to revoke their strike and participate in a collaborative effort to pull up the institute,” he says.

Mr. Chauhan can take comfort from the fact that none of his illustrious predecessors has been spared the spectre of an FTII strike either.

Plagued by strikes

In 1997, when Dr. Mohan Agashe, the then FTII Director, came up with an innovative idea to stop strikes by freezing admissions until every student had finished his or her course, the FSA appealed to the Bombay High Court and won their case arguing that the FTII was wasting government resources by refusing to take new students.

According to filmmaker Hansal Mehta, a lack of clarity and transparency has been a fundamental flaw at the heart of FTII, which in turn has engendered its steady bureaucratisation. “Eschewing any concern for the artistic future of the institute or students, the game has been reduced to a show of strength between political parties,” said Mr. Mehta. “If the I&B Ministry under the Congress put its own people when the United Progressive Alliance was in power, the BJP will do the same. But even so, can a Gajendra Chauhan come remotely close to a Saeed Akhtar Mirza or even a Vinod Khanna [also a BJP leader]?”

According to eminent filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, more disturbing than Mr. Chauhan’s appointment is the unveiled attempt to ‘saffronise’ the institute. “He [Chauhan] is merely an incidental figurehead. The dubious constitution of the governing council and its murmurings about imbuing students with a ‘nationalistic fervour’ is extremely troubling,” he remarked, adding that he sympathised with the striking students as this was a serious question of the future of art in India.

The students, meanwhile, are determined to continue their strike until the Ministry engages with issues more seriously. “While we are distressed that our academics are hanging fire, we cannot accept such a chairman and a governing council. A rot at the top will affect every subsequent appointment, including that of the new Director in the future. He [Chauhan] does not inspire any confidence with his body of work,” said Harishankar Nachimuthu, president, FSA.

Is privatisation the solution?

In the ensuing din, was the P word uttered at all when a delegation of protesting students from the FTII met with I&B Minister Arun Jaitley last week? Ministry officials say Mr. Jaitley made only a reference to the Geethakrishnan Committee set up a little over a decade ago to examine the status of several institutes, including the FTII, with a roadmap to address the issues plaguing them. The Ministry had opposed the move to privatise FTII then.

About five years ago, Ambika Soni, I&B Minister in the UPA government, had asked Hewitt Associates to work on a report to reform FTII, aimed at upgrading it to international standards. Interestingly, the minutes of some of the meetings held back in 2010 say: “There is no inclusion of privatisation, disinvestment or PPP in the draft report. The idea of PPP has been long removed after the discussion at the ministry and holds no part of the report.” Sources at Hewitt said the report has been in cold storage since the time of its submission.

Privatisation will put the institute out of reach for many students who aspire to be part of the cinema industry. A better solution might be to appoint a suitable chairperson and initiate real reforms quickly.