Students of India’s Film and Television Institute strike over dubious appointments to the school’s governing body

Vocal students of India’s Film and Television Institute are striking over their government’s appointments of loyalists with fishy credentials to the state-funded school’s governing body

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 2:00pm

As battlegrounds go, the leafy campus of India’s premier film school must count among the more graceful, with its rows of tidy bungalows gently shaded by neem and tamarind trees.

 Yet there is no mistaking the foment at the Film and Television Institute of India. Hand-painted slogans snake across building walls, quoting Albert Camus and Martin Luther King. Outside the cafeteria, students smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, talking of fascism and free speech.

 For nearly three months, the roughly 400 students here have been on strike, protesting the Indian government’s appointments of loyalists with dubious credentials – including an actor who appeared in B-grade adult movies and a maker of right-wing propaganda films – to the state-funded school’s governing body.

 “They want to turn the institute into a factory for their political views,” says Ranjit Nair, a directing student helping lead the protests. “We totally reject that.”

 The skirmish is over not just the future of the foremost film academy in the world’s biggest movie-making nation, a breeding ground for Oscar winners, expert technicians, darlings of the international festival circuit and stalwarts of Bollywood and India’s thriving regional cinema.

 It also represents the biggest showdown yet over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to reshape India’s cultural institutions to fit his conservative Hindu nationalist agenda.

 During 16 months in power, Modi has packed the national censorship board with political supporters; named an obscure historian who believes in a literal reading of Hindu mythology to lead a prestigious research institute; and created a government ministry to promote yoga and traditional medicine while docking the country’s overall health budget.

 “It’s obvious that these moves are connected,” says Jabeen Merchant, a film editor and alumna. “Every government nominates people it likes; that’s inevitable. But this particular government is doing it in such a way that nobody can miss the agenda that’s being promoted.”

They want to turn the institute into a factory for their political views. We totally reject that.
Ranjit Nair, student

 The confrontation escalated early this month after a group of students refused to let the institute’s director, Prashant Pathrabe, leave his office one night. They formed a chain and blocked Pathrabe’s door in a type of civil disobedience known as a gherao, or encirclement, a favourite tactic of Indian labour activists in the 1960s.

 Police arrived to free Pathrabe, who filed charges the next day, saying he had been subjected to “mental torture”. That night police arrested five students, who were freed on bail.

 Supporters of the strike accused police and administrators of overreacting, while those sympathetic to Modi’s government called the students insubordinate.

 “They are not discussing with the government; they are trying to dictate,” says Uday Shankar Pani, a 1974 graduate who was a first assistant director on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.  

 “They’re saying, ‘We don’t want anyone connected to your party’. Hey, man, who are you talking to? The government is paying for this school.”

 At the core of the dispute is the peculiar status of the institute, which is formally a unit of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, founded in 1960 to train skilled workers for a nascent film industry. The full-time professors are civil servants. On the campus in the bustling western city of Pune, everything is subsidised, from the US$1,100 annual tuition and fees to the cafeteria’s US$1 chicken curry.

 New Delhi’s view of the institute as a polytechnic has long clashed with students’ creative aspirations. The school vacuums up national film awards, and its graduates include some of the leading lights of Indian film and theatre, including actor Anupam Kher, director Shyam Benegal and Resul Pookutty, who won a sound mixing Oscar in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire.  

 “The institute has contributed immensely to the flowering of both mainstream and art house Indian cinema,” says Indranil Bhattacharya, a directing professor. “Its place in the industry is extremely crucial.”

 It has also developed a reputation as a hotbed of protests – “‘One strike a decade’ is an unofficial  institute slogan”, a professor says – although they never before spilled into national politics.