As students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) intensify their agitation for the removal of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute’s governing council, more artistes are joining the chorus. That Chauhan was appointed merely because of his BJP credentials rather than his stature as an actor is indisputable. And, as many are saying, the information and broadcasting ministry’s decision is ill-advised and must be revoked. But the manner in which the debate over Chauhan’s credentials is shaping up and the arguments being made in support of his removal have acquired an elitist hue.
Take, for example, the argument that the seat that was earlier occupied by the likes of Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan cannot go to a person like Chauhan. That his predecessors are eminent persons is well taken, but are Benegal, Gopalakrishnan and Saeed Akhtar Mirza popular filmmakers? Compared to the overwhelming number of cinegoers, the craft of these filmmakers has been seen and appreciated by an extremely small audience. Their films do not resonate with the vast majority, a strange irony considering that their works are realistic and are mostly about the poor sections of society. So should we argue that they didn’t deserve their coveted appointments? Are we arguing in a classist fashion when we cite the names of these great filmmakers?
Of course, Chauhan, whose only claim to fame is his portrayal of Yudhishthir in the tele-epic, Mahabharata, doesn’t even make the popular grade. He gets disqualified even on that count. But, let’s not weaken the argument by citing the names of some undisputedly great — though unpopular — filmmakers.
And how about U.R. Ananthamurthy, another former FTII chairman? What were his cinematic credentials? Why was his appointment not opposed? Because he was a respected figure among artistic elites?
Some experts even asked Chauhan in television debates about his exposure to international cinema. Must exposure to global cinema be a prerequisite to be FTII chairperson? Let’s not forget that some of our best and most talented actors and directors have come from extremely underprivileged and ordinary backgrounds and had no formal training from any institute. Making occupying a position of artistic eminence conditional on some classist notions smells of elitism. If we go by such ideas, then the likes of O.P. Nayyar would never have been allowed to set foot in the film industry because they had no formal understanding of classical music. It is pertinent to mention here what Asha Bhosle once said about him: “We could reproduce only 80 per cent of what Nayyar taught us to sin.” Clearly, the world of art can never be and should never be held hostage to elitist notions of class superiority.
Witness how Chauhan is defending himself. He is not making false claims about his cinematic credentials. He is merely saying that he has been appointed by the government of India and that he will do everything possible to carry out his responsibilities without pushing an ideological agenda. He also asks how his incompetence can be pre-concluded. Isn’t that a fair question to ask?
Chauhan is hardly in a position to win the debate yet — but he is not losing it either. If the government doesn’t budge on his appointment, the civilised response would be to let Chauhan prove his competence — or incompetence. The challenge before FTII students would be to take him on if and when he vitiates the institution’s environment with ideological or political poison. He might not do that after all.