Cover Story

The Many Faces Of Protest

FTII students doggedly resist the saffronisation of their academic space

Walk into the Film and Television Institute of India, under the arch, at any time of the day, and you get a sense of having crossed over to another world, like in a Christopher Nolan film. The short walk from the security office, past a makeshift sculpture of a question mark, to the famed Wisdom Tree, doesn’t quite prepare you for what awaits. Quotes from Albert Camus and Dostoevsky splash the walls of different offices, including the washroom. The students look every bit “those dirty drug addicts” their critics have alleged them to be, unwashed and unkempt in appearance, many with scraggly beards, walking around in shorts, smoking, talking, staring into empty space, reading, working on their laptops, filming, adopted stray dogs sharing the mattresses with them under the Wisdom Tree. As night falls, the only things that change are the sweeping darkness and a few lightbulbs coming on. The students, mostly in their 20s and 30s, interact with the media, sounding polite but firm about their demands and their resolve. There is no time for food and sleep.On Monday, August 18, when the students along with faculty members entered director Prashant Pathrabe’s cabin in the afternoon, there was no indication of what was to follow. It was the 68th day of the strike and the students were now fighting for a stay on the I&B ministry’s new as-is-where-is assessment of the diploma films of the 2008 batch. Which in short meant whatever project was still incomplete would be left at that. During the seven-eight-hour hold-up, which would lead to the arrest of five students by Tuesday midnight, apart from the presence of a crowd of students in the cabin, nothing seemed intimidating, let alone violent. In fact, we and other journalists waiting outside even heard bouts of loud laughter in between. However, things changed rapidly as the director could not assure them of a stay on assessment. Police swooped on the campus at midnight and rounded up the students. Five of them were arrested for unlawful assembly, rioting and other criminal charges.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Vikas Urs, 30, Mysore
Course: Third-year cinematography

For someone who left a cushy life as a software engineer to follow his passion, Vikas wasn’t planning on a life of activism or ending up in jail. The strike has been a “discovery of India” for him. “What is administration, politics, media, film industry, it’s been a crash course,” says the exhausted but enthusiastic protester who is constantly being pestered for something or the other about the strike. He’s concerned that students who never wanted the glare on them before the strike may now be vulnerable. His parents in Mysore are certainly worried. “This is perhaps the only place in India where people with no film background discover cinema, are allowed to discover, with no pressure to look and feel a certain way. People do not understand FTII,” he says. He feels the chairperson of an institute like this must understand cinema, politics, art and bring all this together in the administration of the institute. Vikas worked with former chairperson Saeed Mirza, and says despite occasional disagreements it was the finest experience. “It’s a rare quality. To defend the present appointment on the lines of art and cinema is like a slap on our faces.”

The harried director, walking the tightrope between an unrelenting government and students, said he had been tortured by the students and went for a medical check-up the next day. The students were back to what they have been doing for the past two months, since they declared a strike to protest the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a small-time actor of B-grade films, as the chairman, and four others in the FTII society, all of them with direct RSS or BJP links. Talks between the government and students have not seen any solution so far, as the I&B ministry has been mulish about retracting its decision, and the students are in no mood to blink.

“I am very worried,” says Lavanya, a third-year film editing student. “Police has been on the campus, there has been talk of rustication, they have combed the hostel, there have been threats from ABVP goons. We think twice before stepping out of the gate, and never go out alone.” There have been many barbs against them, oscillating between moralistic stereotyping to raking up of systemic failures that plague the institute. “When we are called anti-Hindu or anti-national on the internet, is it not violence?” asks Rahat Jain, studying for a one-year screenplay diploma. “We are extremely stressed. We wanted to finish this but there is no closure. It’s only the resilience and zeal of the student community that has kept me going.”

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Shini J.K., 23, Kannur
Course: TV editing, One year

At such a young age, Shini has completed her engineering, convinced her parents about changing the course of her life and has the conviction and maturity of a senior activist. “I am here after a lot of struggle. This is a rare campus in the country, which allows students to make mistakes and learn,” she says. She was expecting the backlash and is disturbed about the efforts being made to divert from the core issue. “This place has a discipline of its own. When there is a call line (call for recording), the whole campus goes silent. It is not a theoretical course. Most importantly, the students have been fighting from the 1990s to prevent privatisation and oppose cultural hegemony. It is because someone went on strike a few years ago that I am getting a one-year subsidised course,” she says. “For us it is our existence, for them it is an ego battle,” she says before getting back to the task of painting messages on the wall.

It has kept Ajayan Adat, 27, going. He is from the dreaded 2008 batch at FTII and is a lean, bearded, fearless, aggressive figure getting stronger in his resolve. He was in Class 2 when he did dubbing for a school programme and ever since he knew he wanted to become that sound editor with his big console. He followed that dream, completed his bachelor course in physics, joined FTII at 19, has exhausted his funds and his family’s savings in repaying the education loan and yet is in no mood to back down. If the 2008 assessments go through on an as-is-where-is basis, he will be judged on a soundtrack that doesn’t exist on his team’s final diploma film. The students have alleged that the move to carry out assessments is to intimidate and to deflect attention from what they are protesting against. But Ajayan actually feels sorry for Gajendra Chauhan. “I really feel bad that he was targeted for his film work,” he says. “He may have been forced to do those films to survive in the industry. I am also okay with his political ideology even if I don’t agree with it. But how can the government appoint heads of so many academic and art institutions on the basis of just being Modi bhakts?” he asks.

This is what makes the FTII protest unique as their more illustrious counterparts in the IITs and IIMs have given in meekly to government interference. No IIT student joined renowned nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar when he quit as chairman in protest against the arbitrary appointment of directors or when A.M. Naik, chairman of the IIM-A board of governors, spoke against the Union HRD ministry’s move to pass a bill to end the institute’s autonomy. “Victimisation of students by the authorities is not new,” says Bishwadeep Chatterjee, FTII alumnus and an award-winning sound designer now based in Mumbai. “They get blamed for indiscipline, substance abuse, are threatened with eviction, intimidation in various forms. But it has never worked. When we were at the campus, they got us arrested on absurd charges. We were eventually acquitted by the courts.” Noted art critic Sadanand Menon says you cannot expect students who are exposed to world cinema and a culture of questioning and thinking to accept something like this and keep shut. “They need to find new ways to reach out and protest now, like make short films about the issue,” he says.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Cephas P. Subba, 28, Darjeeling
Course: Film editing, third-year

Cephas stumbled into the world of films when he accidentally did Mass Communications instead of his first love, literature. Although interested in photography, he couldn’t afford to pursue the expensive hobby. Now at FTII (after his extended family pooled in money for his fees), his views on politics, cinema, film-making and the “idea of development” are getting sharpened by the day. “I was always interested in affairs of the state but saw no option in Darjeeling so I chose to be apolitical,” says Cephas, a quiet, pleasant chap who is constantly shooting and uploading videos of the strike on their Facebook page, humouring the media and giving updates. He has had arguments with his mother, who wants him to finish the course and come back, but in a debate between safety and freedom of thought there can be only one winner. He’s clear that the students are not there to become just technicians. “To say film-making is for entertainment is very irresponsible. Given how people see films in India, cinema education plays an important role. It is unlike any other academic course. I’d love it if my director or chairman calls me to discuss the politics of films. That’s the mentorship I need and this place deserves. What’s the point of studying under someone who’s my level? I want to look up to them.”

But is strike the only way out? Does it ever resolve anything? “This kind of breakdown was anticipated from day one,” says R.V. Ramani, another alumnus and a documentary filmmaker from Chennai. “They have a huge stake. It is a liberal arts institute; unless you are free, you can’t make films. That’s why it is the most wonderful national institute. The students have no other choice but to protest.” Others, however, feel this culture of strikes at FTII has gone on for too long. “The politicians have failed miserably to keep academics out of politics,” says Shrirang Godbole, a well-known producer of Marathi films. “The culture of strikes is affecting the output. However, students should focus on completing their courses and express their politics through their work once they leave the institute.” Veteran actor Mohan Agashe, who resigned as director after a troubled five-year stint, says the situation is worsening rapidly. “I tried very hard to resolve the issues related to curriculum and restructure the courses, but what was the outcome? Does anyone want to actually solve the problems or simply strike?” says an agitated Agashe.

There is also fear that the government will use the students’ strike to privatise FTII. “Whenever there is an agitation, there is a bunch of people who descend on the place with suggestions of privatising the institute,” says Chatterjee. “Then the courses would cost not less than `20 lakh each. Does this mean that a poor boy has no right to film education? The subsidy helps those students to pursue their dreams. That is also the main objective of this institute.”

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Payal Kapadia, 29, Mumbai
Course: Second-year direction

“A strike is supposed to be the stopping of something. For me it has been the opposite,” says Payal who feels the past two months have been the most enriching time of her life. “We have had so many discussions. We have seen so much, be it ABVP or Rahul Gandhi. We have had classes, screened films. I don’t see it as a loss of time at all. After all, what do you make films about?” An outgoing city girl, Payal has worked with a video artiste and holds the complex FTII education in high regard. Her mother, an artiste herself, who was part of student movements in her time, understands why the strike is important. “Anyone who says the chairman’s role is ornamental has not taken it seriously. He heads the governing council. He has to be capable of understanding the complex education here and then implement things,” says Payal earnestly. Like a true direction student, she has immense patience and optimism about the strike, its outcome, and their future. “It’s quite a prestige to get in and we have a strong alumni network. Industry people definitely say, FTII se hai toh kuchh toh credibility hai.

There are many issues that have plagued the institute for many years, as the I&B ministry points out. It is true that projects get delayed, students are lax, the curriculum needs an overhaul, the faculty needs fresh talent, big names from Indian and foreign film industries should be involved, the infrastructure needs repairs, state-of-the-art equipment must be bought and so on. But these are issues that plague almost most education institutes in our country. This particular strike is about something else, something as much at the heart of democracy as elections—snuffing out creative freedom and liberal thinking on the campus.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Kshama Padalkar, 33, Pune
Course: Third-year film editing

Kshama has already seen a bit of life after degrees in literature from Pune and Hyderabad and has had stints as lecturer and part-time editor. An introvert, she wanted to contribute to the strike by simply shooting the protests and events around it, to do her bit to oppose the “shady appointments”. However, as she realised how misunderstood the whole FTII community was in the mainstream, outside of the campus, she has taken it up to go to colleges and explain their position to other students. “The strike brought the FTII students closer and we spread out to Pune-based colleges and other universities to explain our side of the story. Because FTII is self-sufficient, it had become a ghetto. Maybe that’s why the Marathi papers wrote terrible things about us,” says an articulate Kshama as she poses for the news channels. “It may be a good thing in the end, they might solve our previous issues too,” she says, adding that since money does not motivate her, she’s not worried about the outcome of the strike. She plans to become an independent documentary maker.

“There may be many issues which do need attention,” says Nagraj Manjule, director of national award-winning Marathi film Fandry. “But that does not take away or resolve the current problem. Whether it is drug abuse or  delay in completion of projects or lack of infrastructure, yes all of this can be and should be addressed. But right now everyone needs to stand by the students on the cause they are fighting for.” Says Umesh Kulkarni, FTII alumnus and a national award-winning filmmaker: “All the old problems are being raked up now to divert attention from the main problem. Freedom is the most important for this art institution. FTII films have consistently won awards at national and international levels. So far the strike has been balanced and beautiful.” Interestingly, the teachers are backing the students. The faculty wrote to the ministry protesting the midnight crackdown. “We stand in solidarity with the students and oppose the police action when no administrative official was available on the campus,” says a professor who didn’t want to be named.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

Abhijit Khuman, 26, Savarkundla, Gujarat
Course: TV Direction, one-year

An MBA who worked on Narendra Modi’s social media campaign before the general elections, he’s an unlikely supporter of the ongoing strike. But Abhijit has not left the side of the Wisdom Tree and those under it since the strike started. He says he can’t describe the beauty of this place, which allows every political ideology to coexist and teaches everyone to respect the other. “The strike awakened me. The government is bent on not allowing other ideas to exist. This is not why we elected you,” he says. “My mother asks, what is happening with you? Is it worth it? Those people I worked with also ask me the same. But think about this. Look at the gate of FTII and imagine Amitabh Bachchan walking through the gate as chairman. How inspired will you be to give your best to the course. Now imagine Gajendra Chauhan in the same place.” The strike may be called off, but Abhijit is certain the students will keep protesting. “Either way, the government will try to clean up FTII. Please tell people to keep their eyes open and tell the government not to force their ideology on us,” he says.

What happens next? Will the government come out with a face-saving solution? Or will it go for an iron hand and throw the students out? The students are definitely not in the mood to give in—they will accept nothing less than the removal of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman as well as the four new society members. Shatrughan Sinha, an FTII alumnus and BJP MP, is not very hopeful of a solution. “I am a proud alumnus of the institute and I dedicate all my awards to the institute,” he says. “I have all the love and sympathy for the students and their families because their future is at stake. But to be frank, I will say a filmi dialogue—ab is situation ko dava ki nahin, dua ki zaroorat hai.”

Battleground capital FTII students protesting in Delhi. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

The I&B ministry will send a delegation to the campus to talk to the students again in a few days. There are also reports of a secret deal senior BJP ministers are trying to thrash out with the students to retrieve the situation. Other political leaders such as Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi have come out in support of the students. The students themselves are going out in small delegations to other universities to garner support: a group of students went to Punjab university last week and another group was protesting in Delhi.

Back at the Wisdom Tree, it’s once again a stream of protest songs and street plays and a ceaseless day-and-night vigil. In the straight narrative of a Bollywood film, this saga would have a happy ending. But if this is to be tranche de vie cinema, what can its possible ending be?

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Pune