The central part of Goa's capital Panaji, draped in lights and banners, wears a festive look in honour of the ongoing 46th International Film Festival of India and, simultaneously, the 9th Film Bazaar (organised by National Film Development Corporation). However, for a few students affiliated to Pune's Film and Television Institute of India — the country's premier film school — the experience has been described by them as a 'Kafkaesque nightmare'.
Tuesday was the first of two days at a guerrilla film festival called Retracing Freedom, taking place about a kilometre away from the venues of the government-organised international event, at Institute Piedade. This event, featuring student films by alumni as well as undergrads, has been set up overnight as a protest by FTII students over the detention and persecution some students have been facing in the state capital over the past few days. Entry to the festival is free and open to everyone.
This is the latest major development in the now-five-month-old agitation over the appointment of BJP member Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute's governing council.
A file photo of FTII alumnus and Congress MP Raj Babbar at a protest. The FTII strike, which began in June, lasted 139 days.
"There were threats issued which made us feel that it might not be allowed to take place, and we got a notice from the police," said filmmaker RV Ramani, an FTII alumnus whose student film is being shown at the festival, in a phone conversation with HuffPost India. "But today went off without a hitch. The turnout was quite huge, there were plenty of locals, and the hall — although it's not a very big hall — was completely packed."
It all began at the opening ceremony on IFFI, held last Friday, when two ex-students, Kislay Tiwari and Shubham Vardhan, shouted slogans and displayed placards criticising the Central government. They also chanted against Arun Jaitley, Union Minister for Finance, Corporate Affairs and Information & Broadcasting, who was one of the guests of honour at the event.
Kislay and Shubham were promptly arrested, allegedly beaten up (according to accounts by other ex-students, including Ramani), and kept in police custody for a night before being released on conditional bail. A day later, Ashutosh Vandana, a current student, was allegedly picked up by Panaji police for wearing an FTII t-shirt. He has since been banned by the festival for life.
Another alumnus, Prateek Vats, told FirstPost that a group of 10 students at an IFFI venue had been "temporarily detained and questioned by the police" who were curious about their "motive" behind attending the festival. Meanwhile, according to The Navhind Times, FTII students have been "partially boycotted" by the festival, with only 20 applications out of 55 having been accepted as delegates.
On Tuesday, an LA Times correspondent tweeted about how three people were accosted by the police for wearing badges that said 'Save FTII', which are being distributed for free at Retracing Freedom.
Three people wearing "Save FTII" badge, roaming around peacefully at #IFFI2015. A few police officers barge in and threaten to arrest them!— Parth MN (@parthpunter) November 24, 2015
Reactions from the other side have been critical. Laxmikant Parsekar, Chief Minister of Goa, has slammed the students for protesting, saying "it was not a matter of their right" while Rajyavardhan Rathore, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, has termed it an attempt to "tarnish India's image on an international platform".
(From left) Rajyavardhan Rathore, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting; Arun Jaitley, Union Minister for Finance, Corporate Affairs and Information & Broadcasting; and Laxmikant Parsekar, Chief Minister of Goa, at a press conference during the festival
Meanwhile, on Sunday, IFFI's festival director C Senthil Rajan was quoted in Scroll.in defending their decision to cancel Vandana's registration, saying, "The registration was cancelled because he went and told the police, I will protest. If the person is coming and saying he will stop the programme, how can we allow it?”
The existence of Retracing Freedom and the CM's comments against the students have become a political opportunity for three independent Opposition legislators — Vijai Sardesai, Naresh Sawal, and Rohan Khaunte — who have promised to ensure that this festival goes off smoothly. “This is not an Emergency. And yes they are students. They have every right to protest against the treatment being meted out to them,” Khaunte told FirstPost.
While the events unfolding in Goa currently only illustrate the experiences of a handful of FTII students and alumni, it seems clear that the stand-off between the institute's students and the government has hit a new pressure-point. While the government may term the protests by the students illegal and agenda-driven, it has also been reported that IFFI — the country's oldest film festival, which has regularly been attended by FTII students and alumni as part of their curriculum — had done away with an entire section which showcased their student films at the festival for the first time in over a decade. However, a report in The Times Of India quotes IFFI's organisers as saying that this decision had nothing to do with the tussle between students and the government.
Many have termed the situation in Goa 'chaotic', but the fact that the first day of Retracing Freedom has taken place successfully has come as a relief to them. As Vats said to FirstPost, it has been a significant step in reclaiming "freedom of thought and artistic expression that are under relentless attack currently across the country".
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