The appointment of Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher as the chief of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) must have come as a breather for the students following the controversy that erupted when his predecessor Gajendra Chauhan was named for the post on June 9, 2015. However, the small-time actor could head the institute for only one year and seven months, after taking proper charge only in January 2016. Traditionally, FTII’s chairman has a tenure of three years.
When Chauhan was named as the FTII head, the decision had irked many, primarily the students who felt that this was a strategic move on the part of the central government, a deliberate propaganda initiated by the right-wing ruling party (BJP) that had come to power in 2014. That spark ignited an inferno, with noted personalities like Arundhati Roy and Dibakar Banerjee giving up their national awards, citing the environment of “religious intolerance” in the country.
Soon after the announcement of Chauhan’s appointment, the FTII campus in Pune was thrown into unprecedented chaos. Students launched an agitation and sat on hunger strikes alleging that Chauhan doesn’t have the merit and artistic sensibilities to head the reputed institute. The strike also saw violent outbursts, such as the one on August 16, 2015 when students forcibly detained then institute director Prashant Pathrabe inside his office until late in the night. There was internal bickering too and it came out when noted actor Pallavi Joshi resigned as a member of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) Society in support of the students. “Nobody wants to be on the losing side. If the ministry takes one step back by removing Chauhan, the students will also one step back and accept other society members,” she said. Filmmaker Jahnu Barua and cinematographer Santosh Sivan had also written to the ministry to leave them out of the governing council.
FTII students believed the appointment of Chauhan was the government’s attempt to “saffronise the institute”. The institute has a history of reputed chairmen, including film veteran Shyam Benegal, R K Laxman, Girish Karnad and U R Ananthamurthy. To have Chauhan, who had a seemingly poor film repertoire in comparison to the aforementioned greats, was something that the students and the film fraternity as a whole could not accept.
Chauhan’s only claim to fame is his portrayal of Yudhishthir in the television series Mahabharata.
About 35 students who were allegedly part of the detention were booked by Pune police. The strike ended on October 2015 – after four months – letting Chauhan assume the charge of his office.
Actors from the film fraternity came out to support the students. Rishi Kapoor said, “If they don’t want you, they don’t want you. Pushing for the chairmanship is getting you no where. Let self-pride play a role and retire.”
“This is something we should be talking about and by this we will clearly know that it is a mistake and that he has no credentials…If I would have been in place of Chauhan and I would have seen that my fraternity does not want me, I would have withdrawn,” said Amol Palekar. However, Chauhan found support through former FTII chairman and eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal. “Credentials are not everything. Chauhan may not have credentials, but maybe he is capable. Students should find out Chauhan’s capability, he is an unknown entity,” Benegal had told NDTV.