Ever since the Information and Broadcasting ministry (I&B) announced the appointment of TV actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairperson of the governing council of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) over contenders such as lyricist Gulzar and filmmaker Jahnu Barua, students at FTII Pune have taken to the streets resisting the ministry’s decision. Alleging that Chauhan wasn’t qualified to head ftii and that the appointment was a result of his closeness to the ruling party, students of ftii have demanded the ministry revoke his appointment at the earliest. Now, with the protests still continuing, it seems that the students at FTII are as resilient as ever. “We have written to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry seeking an appointment to discuss the issues in response to its communication expressing willingness for a dialogue with the students. However, we are still awaiting a confirmation of the appointment,” pti quoted FTII Students’ Association (FSA) president Harishankar Nachimuthu as saying.
While students at FTII are unanimous in their demands, it seems that voices within the film fraternity are divided in their opinion. Speaking to Tehelka, filmmaker and former FTII Chairperson Shyam Benegal asks, “What are they protesting for? The ministry reserves the right to appoint the chairperson. You and I would want the best person to be at the head. But, we can’t have our way, can we? Let him hold a meeting with the governing council and let us see if he (Gajendra) shoves his ‘ideology’ down throats. Until we know what is coming, must we jump the gun?” Echoing this sentiment, Santhosh Shivan, a noted cinematographer who recently declined the government’s invitation to be on the governing council of FTII says, “I don’t want to judge anyone. Taking all the former chairpersons into consideration, he (Gajendra) might not fit the bill. The institute is going through a bad time already. In the long run, a protest can acquire mob-like character and take things to a different level altogether. That said, I do not think that one person’s opinion might result in a collective voice. There are a lot of sensible people out there.”
Though Benegal and Shivan might seem to be looking for ‘reason’ within the student protests, it must be said that the long history of the bjp regime with respect to films critiquing the state has often involved ‘unreasonable knee-jerk responses’. For instance, under the previous Vajpayee-led regime, several films including Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) that examined the plight of impoverished widows at a temple, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2002) on Gujarat communal riots, Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace (2002) focusing on the dangers of nuclear war, Faiz Anwar’s Chandh Bujh Gaya (2005) depicting the love story of a young couple( a Hindu boy and Muslim girl) and Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004), recreating the 1993 Bombay blasts, had faced hurdles. “India has the worst censorship in the world. No other country has shown such disrespect and cruelty towards this art. That said, it was the nda regime that was the worst in comparison to others. Just take the case of Kashyap, not a single movie made by him passed the censors until a regime change happened,” says Prahas, a short film-maker. Interestingly, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2002) was denied a certificate when the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was headed by eminent actor Anupam Kher, who was then rooting for Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. “Their idea of nationalism is blind. Don’t question the state and do not make any comment on any state-sponsored atrocities. The present move is their attempt to strike at the root and keep artists under control. You know, when Sushma Swaraj was the I&B minister, she had visited the ftii campus. I remember how she had asked us then, ‘why do you make depressing films and not happy family-oriented films?” says Gurvinder Singh, a former alumnus and National Award-winning filmmaker.
Producing over a thousand films in a year that are screened at 10,000 halls or more, the Indian film industry is the largest in the world. To a layperson, this sheer volume of films produced by the industry is testament to the country’s diversity. However, this is true only for those movies that fit commercial standards such as the typical ‘song and dance routine’. The ones that attempt to articulate an opinion/ shed light on the State’s atrocities are resisted vociferously. In 2014, when National-award winning documentary maker and former FTII alumnus Sanju Surendran had approached the CBFC for certification for his short film Garass, the movie was denied a certificate owing to its reference to Narendra Dabholkar, the activist who was killed in his fight against superstition. To date, the movie, a diploma film meant for ftii students and academic circles, has been denied certification. Under the new cbfc head, Pahlaj Nihalani, things have gone from bad to worse. Calling a ban on 20 words including Bombay and any cuss word, Nihalani had also reportedly expressed reservations at mentioning ‘Salman Khan’ or ‘Jayalalithaa’ in a movie. This is in addition to denying certification to films such as Amit Raj Kumar’s Unfreedom that speaks about a lesbian relationship between a Hindu and a Muslim woman and K Ganeshan’s Porkathil Oru Poo that examines the life of Isaipriya, a journalist killed during the 2009 Srilankan war.
A self-made filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi: How we celebrate freedom (2007) was repeatedly denied screening at various venues due to pressure from bjp’s student wing, abvp. Responding to Benegal’s and Shivan’s remarks on the protest, Kak says, “I don’t think anybody should be making a case for an absence of ideology. Gajendra Chauhan has one and so did Ritwik Ghatak. So does Shyam Benegal, I suppose. For me, the most important part of the uproar is that he is a man with a very limited reputation as an actor. I don’t think it is necessarily elitist or bourgeois to say that. What has he done to deserve the job? His appointment follows that of Mukesh Khanna as Chairman of the Children’s Film’s Society who played Bhishma in the same Mahabharata. Their appointment comes on top of Pahlaj Nihalani being made Chairperson of CBFC. No one can quite figure out what Mr Nihalani has done to deserve this honour either. Is this a coincidence? Or are we right in feeling that this is a result of rapid and highly damaging saffronisation of cultural institutions? I don’t think we have to wait till they ‘shove their ideology in our mouths’, only the very generous will not notice the fact that the process has already begun.”
The process of filmmaking has more to it than meets the eye. Right from imagining a location to sketching a character to casting the right actors, the project is mounted on a landscape etched outside of a spectator’s imagination. It is in this context that movies are ‘told’ to carry disclaimers, face ‘cuts’ over ‘provocative’ scenes, denied certification over ‘one-sided perspectives’ and shunned from screening halls. In light of the interventions made by the cbfc, the newly appointed members of the governing council’s remarks on instilling ‘national sentiments’ in students and the government’s alleged attempt at taking over cultural institutions such as ftii, it is time that we ask, “Must our cinema only be nationalistic?”