A group of policemen sit outside the massive gates of Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, ready to step in, should the students' strike get out of hand. The gates bear the words 'Freedom of Expression? #Wisdom Tree'. The strike started on June 12, against the appointment of television actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the iconic institute's governing council.
Behind the gates, on the FTII’s leafy campus, there is a multitude of ponytails, full beards and bald heads. The students are mostly dressed in shorts, distressed jeans, pyjamas and flipflops. Many of them have a tea cup in one hand and a fag in the other. Some of them look like they have just woken up and come out of their hostel rooms to check on the day's developments. Then there are others who are walking around the campus, trying to galvanise the students to add to the cheers and the slogans.
Gaurav Mod, a final-year direction student, says he is not interested in “this kind of protest” even though he is angry at Chauhan's appointment. His way of revolt, he says, would be “simple”. “I would get naked and sit under the Wisdom Tree [a popular hangout],” he says.
Five teams are working round-the-clock to ensure that the strike goes on. “The logistics team is taking care of the technical stuff such as the projectors, microphones and sound, the media team talks to the press and is contacting the relevant people through the right channels,” says Ameya Gore, a final-year direction student. “Then there is the outreach team which is contacting famous personalities in art and cinema, the audio-visual team and the production team, which is ensuring that everybody is well fed because at the FTII, we don’t believe in hunger strikes.”
The Wisdom Tree, where the legendary Ritwik Ghatak once sat and pondered about filmmaking, has been appropriated by the striking students. Beside the Wisdom Tree, Faisal Rahman, a final-year direction student, sits with a group that is making music as a mark of protest. “It is not like there is a designated group for it,” says Rahman. “People are just coming here, shouting slogans and taking turns to beat the 'instruments'. There are steel plates from the mess and then there is the iron latch of the door, which somebody is banging. I even saw paintbrushes being used as drumsticks. So, whatever you get your hands on, you get creative with that.”
Rahman was aghast at Chauhan’s appointment. “We were trying to find out who he was,” says Rahman. “Then we found out that he really is a nobody; just someone who campaigned for the BJP in the last election and has been a party worker for ten years, which is fine. But for the chairman's post, the person has to have some kind of artistic credibility and his work has to be of some repute at the national level at least.”
Yashasvi Mishra, an FTII graduate, returned to the campus to express his solidarity with the striking students. “The FTII is not a five-year-old institute; it has a history,” says Mishra. “And, though in cinema, it is difficult to talk about credentials and a person’s capability because there are no defined benchmarks, one thing is certain: those who sat in that chair in the past like Mrinal Sen, Girish Karnad and Saeed Mirza were well-known for their contribution to cinema.”
Chauhan's sole claim to fame is his role in the TV series Mahabharat in the late 1980s, in which he played the role of Yudhishtir. “Chauhan may have worked for 35 years, but it is not about quantity or tenure,” says Mishra. “We have nothing against him personally; what we are against is the idea and the process. We need a chairman who inspires, envisions, and, perhaps, if need be, changes the vision and goes for a new approach. From whatever little of Chauhan's work is available on the internet, he somehow doesn’t seem credible.”
The students have been using social media to garner support for their demand. “We started connecting with students from different parts of the country,” says Lavanya Ramaiah, a final-year film editing student. “They were posting solidarity letters and protest pictures, and sharing our pictures.”
However, the students were in for a shock. On June 16, their Facebook profile was disabled. Whether it was a technical glitch or done at the behest of the government, no one knows. The same day, the information and broadcasting ministry sent a letter to the students union president Harishankar Nachimuthu saying that it was ready for talks.