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How smooth were things at FTII after the initial opposition to Gajendra Chauhan? speaks with a few current and former students of the Film and Television Institute of India to get a perspective on Chauhan's term as chairman.

Mayur Lookhar

Last week, former Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) chairman Gajendra Chauhan spoke to explaining how after the initial opposition to his appointment, things were quite smooth. Chauhan said the comptroller and auditor general of India's report has said FTII was managed well under his leadership.

Gajendra Chauhan: Anupam Kher has not replaced, but succeeded me

We spoke to a few current and former FTII students to get their perspective on Chauhan's tenure. Save one, all spoke on condition of anonymity.

Vipin Waghmare is a former FTII student who has completed a certification course in TV cinematography. Waghmare had enrolled in 2014 for the year-long certification course, but he only passed out in 2016. The 139-day strike to protest against Chauhan’s appointment had paralysed the FTII and resulted in the delay. Waghmare was among the protesters. 

Asked what problems he encountered during Chauhan’s stewardship of the institute, Waghmare replied, “None of my projects suffered, but there were friends from other batches who suffered. There is an empty bungalow on the premises, but my friend was not allowed to shoot there. At times, some of the screenings were stopped. Our scripts were censored if they were deemed to be politically offensive.”

Waghmare recounted an incident when a student was not allowed to make a documentary on the works of an Iraqi poet. “I wouldn’t like to name the student, but that person, who was studying direction, wanted to make a film on an Iraqi who wrote poems about the civilian protests in the war-torn country. The FTII authorities feared it could create political problems. So they asked the student to concentrate on [the poet's] personal life! The student did manage to make the documentary. This student had earlier protested with us but was made to sign a pledge not to take part in any further protests.”

Chauhan had said that in his tenure 75% attendance was made mandatory for students and teachers and that attendance had spiked to 95%. But Waghmare was unimpressed. “I’m sorry, but who talks about attendance [as an achievement]?" he retorted. "Suppose a senior is doing a project and seeks the assistance of a few juniors, of course I will pick that over academics. Theory can be learnt, but practicals are very important. Because of the 75% attendance rule, many couldn’t go and assist seniors who were shooting their final projects. So, many projects were delayed.”

Commenting on the workings of the FTII under Chauhan, another former student who was at the forefront of the protests against Chauhan said, “They were trying to impose themselves on the institution. They changed the function of the governing and academic councils and took out the students' role from those because the students were significant stakeholders in decision making. They took away our voice from the academic meeting and created a syllabus that is not in synch with the FTII ethos."

In the past, politics has spilled into school textbooks, with the frequent erasure and addition of topics. Did any so-called saffronization take place at the FTII?

“Certainly," responded the former agitator. "Tomorrow you may be asked to make a film on national interest, but is it really a national-interest film? There was a lady in the previous governing team who had made a film justifying the demolition of the Babri Masjid! She said a temple should be built in Ayodhya.”

Waghmare supported this student's view. “Why do you need a [Hindu nationalist leader VD] Savarkar statue in the institute?" he said. "Did he have any connection with films? Also, we were made to watch [the TV serial] Mahabharata. I wonder what purpose it served.” Chauhan had played Yudhisthira in the serial produced by the filmmaker BR Chopra for Doordarshan back in the 1980s.

We also spoke to a few current students, each having a different experience. A senior student from the editing course was not happy with the way things had panned out under Chauhan. The student had enrolled for a year's course last year, but left as he was unhappy. He has since rejoined the course.

Chauhan had told that he had cleared out students who have been dragging on in the institute from as far back as 2007-08.  But the senior editing student said, “If a student doesn’t clear a course in his three years, that is the student’s fault. But if a student is taking eight years to complete a course, it is clearly administrative failure. I will not blame Mr Chauhan per se. Both the students and the administration are to be blamed. But how can you throw out a student who hasn't cleared his/her project?”

One of the key grievances this student had against Chauhan was the removal of the playback exercise. “Indian cinema’s uniqueness lies in its musicals," he said. "But they removed the playback exercise. How wise is that?”

Robin Joy, president of the students' association, and Rohit Kumar, general secretary, have written an open letter to new chairman Anupam Kher highlighting the problems that plague the FTII. They have mentioned how some of the crash courses introduced were not benefiting students and were just money spinners. Rohit Kumar and Robin Joy cited the ‘Short Course in Fiction Writing for Television’, which is run for 20 days and for which students are charged Rs20,000, as an instance. “This is simply a money-making racket, because administrators want their salaries to increase,” said the editing student.

Another student from the video editing course, who enrolled after Chauhan’s tenure ended, said, "I have been here for a few months, and so far there has been no trouble. But I have heard about some people not being happy with the new short-term courses. At present, second-year students are also protesting against the FTII decision not to grant an extra day for the dialogue exercise. The students were demanding three days, but the FTII kept it to two.”

In what students see as a case of vindictiveness, projects of the agitating students were not sent to the Cannes film festival last year. “Whoever actively participated in the strike, the FTII didn’t send their films to Cannes," the senior editing student said. "Not just Cannes but even other festivals. Last year, only one film was sent as that student had not participated in the strike."

However, another former student who has completed a course in sound design played down the protests. “As far as I am concerned, everything went smoothly in my course," he said. "A lot of these protests are perhaps backed by a political party. I cannot say whether Mr Chauhan did a good or a bad job, but the situation is not as bad as is made out in the media.”

While many hold strong views about Chauhan's tenure, it would clearly be unfair to pin the blame on an individual and the FTII perhaps needs an overhaul. Anupam Kher certainly has a tough task on his hands.