Saffron raj at FTII? Appointing Gajendra Chauhan as Pune Film Institute head is latest instance of BJP overreach

Rohini Chatterji

Jun 16, 2015 07:16:22 IST

It was only a few months ago in January that there was a huge uproar over the appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification of India (CBFC). Apart from Nihalani, several other people who were inducted into the board are known to be active BJP workers or supporters. Now, an appointment to another film-related institution has left people fuming.

Students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) have been on strike since 12 June over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the new chairman.

While the students shunned the appointment calling it a 'political' move, noted filmmaker and FTII alumnus Jahnu Barua dubbed the appointment a 'matter of concern,' an Indian Express report said.

 Saffron raj at FTII? Appointing Gajendra Chauhan as Pune Film Institute head is latest instance of BJP overreach

Gajendra Chauhan. Ibnlive quoted a student as saying, "We have nothing personal against Mr Chauhan, but we are protesting the selection process. If you are selecting somebody to head the governing council, it needs to be somebody who understands our issues. We are going through tremendous transition, especially in the field of digital technology, and tomorrow, if we need a syllabus change, we need somebody who will responsibly handle the change. We cannot take the selection process so lightly."

Recent appointments by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has come under a lot of criticism. Critics believe that the BJP government is rewarding those who campaigned for the party prior to the elections. Recently, the government appointed Mukesh Khanna, who played Bhishma in Mahabharata and later Shaktimaan, as the head of Children's Film Society. Khanna too had campaigned for the BJP, and was caught on camera calling Modi, "the Shaktimaan in Gujarat."

And the critics may not have been wrong. A look at Chauhan's profile shows that he is indeed the perfect candidate for the BJP. The Hindu reports, "He is best known as Yudhishthira in the hugely popular Mahabharata TV series produced by B.R. Chopra and aired on Doordarshan between1988-90. Other than this, Mr. Chauhan has appeared in numerous television soaps, generally of inferior quality, and several ‘B’ grade Bollywood ventures. Associated with the BJP for two decades, Mr. Chauhan formally joined the party in 2004. He extensively campaigned for the BJP in Haryana during the Lok Sabha elections last year."

Be it the head of Doordarshan to Nihalani, the past few appointments in film bodies have made it clear that the government now wants to strategically place its own people at the helm of these institutes, thereby gaining control over them.

National Award winning filmmaker Anand Patwardhan was quoted by The Times of India as saying, "I came here to understand the situation. The students know what they are doing. It is not shocking that the BJP is saffronizing all public institutions in the country. There is no transparency in Chauhan's appointment. They could have appointed Jahnu Barua or Rajkumar Hirani for the post."

The fact that four of the eight members nominated under ‘Persons of Eminence’ category to the FTII society have BJP or RSS backgrounds only reinforces Patwardhan's 'saffronisation' argument.

Here's how The Indian Express describes the four people, "Anagha Ghaisas, who has a strong RSS background and whose husband was a long-serving Sangh pracharak, has made documentary films supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and about Ayodhya. Narendra Pathak had been the Maharashtra president of the ABVP for four years, Pranjal Saikia is an office-bearer of the RSS-linked Sanskar Bharati, while Rahul Solapurkar admitted he was in contention for a BJP ticket in last year’s state Assembly elections."

Cinema, the medium, is considered a means to explore ideas, conflicts and cultures. And ideally should be under no compulsion to endorse or submit to traditional morality. The RSS, on the other hand, is all about traditional morality. That's not an assumption, their leaders have repeatedly issued dubious statements about gender, religion, morality making it evident that they work predominantly on social and cultural prejudices.

Even as Indian cinema is breaking out of its 'girl meets boy and runs around trees' mould, the need of the hour is freedom of expression and a truly liberal outlook. And what people like Ghaisas and Pathak, who are neck deep in RSS' ideologies, have in mind should make the Indian film industry wary.

While Ghaisas says she is proud of her RSS background, Pathak tells The Indian Express, "We are Indians and work for the nation. There shouldn’t be any anti-national activity at the institute. If there are mischief makers who work against the government, to unko sabak sikhana zaroori he (they should be taught a lesson)."

Pathak's and Ghaisas' comments make it evident that freedom of expression is not something they have great respect for. And for such people to be at the helm of any educational institute is highly counter-productive.

The government has dismissed these protests like they had ignored protests against the BJP-fication of the Censor Board. We have seen how doling out important positions in film bodies as gifts to people who back BJP turned out with the censor board. Not only did Nihalani come up with absurd ideas to censor films, a major ego tussle and power struggle ensued among the board members, some of them BJP supporters too. The Censor Board mess is a clear example of the consequences of appointing people in positions of responsibility not on the basis of merit and relevance, but as rewards for political patronage.

We can only imagine what Chauhan and his coterie of saffron supporters can do to FTII. In fact, Ghaisas has said, "Films are not just entertainment. A new thought process should start at FTII. Students should have nationalistic feelings.” It is clear from Ghaisas' statement that she believes that students in FTII don't usually have sentiments that respect the country. And she also believes that 'nationalistic feelings' - whatever her definition for it is - should be shoved down the throats of the students. That's actually a prelude to a horror story. 

Trying to clamp down on films is a blatant strike on freedom of thought and expression. We can only hope that the BJP government takes cue from the protests and tones down it's saffronisation process.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2015 07:17:08 IST