Gajendra Chauhan's stint as FTII chairman ends: A student looks back on his controversial tenure

Abhijeet Khuman

Mar,03 2017 13:28 05 IST

Editor's note: Friday, 3 March 2017, could be the last day in office for Film and Television Institute of India chairman Gajendra Chauhan. His two-year stint was marked by a 139-day strike by students, who protested against what they felt was a politically-motivated appointment of a candidate who was ill-qualified to head the premier institute. As Chauhan's two-year term comes to an end — at this time it is unclear if he will be granted an extension — an FTII student looks back over what his tenure has meant. 

The students’ strike began on 11 June 2015. The FTII I know has a very clear demarcation: ‘Before Strike’, and ‘After Strike’. And in the After Strike era, things have changed drastically.

When Mr Gajendra Chauhan visited the campus on 7 January 2016, we were protesting outside the gates. Students were arrested by the city police; we spent the whole day at the police station and some of us were beaten up. Now when we think about speaking up against something that’s wrong, it is those horrific images that come back to us. Students who are currently on campus tell us that they don’t feel free; in that sort of environment, I don’t think anybody can work.

Controversial FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan's tenure ends on 3 March 2017

Controversial FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan's tenure ends on 3 March 2017

Our strike at FTII lasted for 139 days, and in many ways, we did achieve our objective — which was to question what was happening. It was never about — ‘Hum iss bande ko hata kar hi rahenge!’ If something is wrong, we must ask questions. If you don’t ask questions, you aren’t being a good citizen. And this is something we intend to continue doing in the future as well, with the films w emake and the stories we tell.

When we launched our strike in June 2015, there was a feeling that if we don't speak now, we'll never be allowed to speak again. It was an entirely new experience for us — that if you say something, you're put in this zone, you're labeled as belonging to a particular ideology. Even you yourself don't know that you believe in this ideology, you're branded: ‘Leftist’ or ‘Naxalite’ or whatever… It was a very disturbing experience. At the same time, it was also very liberating. Liberating, because that was when we found out that whenever we raise our voices, there will be forces that try to suppress us — but there is no reason to fear those forces. We still need to ask questions, we still need to do the right thing.

Gajendra Chauhan's controversial 19-month tenure as FTII Chairman ends on 3 March

Were the fears we had when we decided to strike unfounded? No, I think those fears came true. (A little after Mr Chauhan took over) students requested permission to organise a film festival on gender equality. The director didn’t give us approval. Instead, a festival on the Mahabharat was screened (Mr Chauhan has incidentally played Yudhishtir in the TV version of the epic). I have nothing against the Mahabharat, but I think — looking at the current situation — gender equality is more a topic on which people need to be sensitised.

Those of us who participated in the strike were targeted by the administration. The court case filed against 35 of us is still pending. There’s the abuse we faced — when someone calls you an ‘anti-national’ or a ‘Naxalite’, it doesn’t feel very good. Of course, that’s very common nowadays. But there were more practical issues as well — students who were part of the strike were denied scholarships; they were denied opportunities for exchange programmes. And some faculty members who had supported the students found that their contracts were not renewed.

The independence and artistic liberty we once enjoyed at FTII is no longer there. For instance, the government council is proposing a new rule which seeks to do away with students’ involvement in the academic council. This is ridiculous. Since the beginning of FTII, students have had a major part to play in the academic council, in selecting, shaping and implementing the syllabus. It's basically the collaboration between students and experts that had made FTII so much better than other places.

Also, if your liberty is taken away, what is the point of a new syllabus or digital equipment? The first responsibility of any art form is that it must represent the truth of our society. If students are not free to do that, then I don't think the new syllabus can help. No matter how good the infrastructure is, when your ideas are not liberated, I don't think any good can come out of it.

If Mr Chauhan considers introducing the new syllabus and digital campus as his achievement, he can do so. But if anyone thinks that just focusing on digitisation will help the artistic work, they are being naive. Because the work of an artist is not based on equipment. Of course equipment provides you better results, but if the thoughts, ideas, ability of free thinking isn’t there, how can we expect better quality of work to come out of FTII?

After the FTII protest, many other schools and colleges have raised their voices and questioned the government. And that is very much needed. Many people have asked us, ‘What did your strike achieve? Aap logon ne hunger strike bhi kar liya, par kya mila? Gajendra Chauhan wahin ka wahin hai.’ I’ve stopped explaining to them that the strike was never against one person, it was about a much larger issue. If we look at what is happening in the country right now — from Delhi to Hyderabad — it’s as though you cannot say a single word without courting controversy. It's not like everybody has a political agenda. We didn't. We didn't have any political affiliation at the time of our strike, or now. We were only fighting for what we believed was right.

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People may think that the debate we see going on around us now has nothing to do with FTII. But we feel that it is aligned with what we were saying at the time. It was about expressing your emotions, ideas, to make the films you want to make. Our intention was not to disturb anyone — it was to create a cultural dialogue in which all ideologies can co-exist. Where people with different ideologies can talk to each other, differentiate from each other, without hating each other.

In my last month at FTII, we were celebrating the one-year anniversary of our strike. And we decided then that we would support every student who raises his or her voice in the country. We would stand with them in solidarity.

We do have a lot of expectations from whoever is appointed the next chairperson. We hope that whoever comes next has the right credentials, that they respect the institute and understand artistic sensibilities. There are lots of pending issues too that need resolving, pertaining to the staff, the cases against students and revising those new rules and norms that aren’t in the students’ best interests. Let's see what happens…

With the case against us still pending, I don’t know what will happen next. I'm personally proud of my participation in the strike. I believe it is the responsibility of every citizen to speak up when they feel something is wrong. If you stay quiet, if you don't speak up, then you'll see your freedoms being infringed. If not today, then tomorrow — it will affect you. Even if you feel now, this is not my fight, this is not my argument, it is not affecting me, why should I speak about it? This was something we encountered as well, when we were trying to drum up support from students of other institutions for our strike: ‘It's not our fight, it's just one institution, it's your chairman, why should we raise our voices?’ But now I'm very sure that if you look around, you will feel that it wasn't about one person, it was about a chain of events. Now when their freedoms are also being threatened, these other students also realise how important it is to raise your voice when something bad is happening.

The writer, an FTII student, was at the forefront of the 139-day strike that rocked the campus in 2015