Anupam Kher's newest appointment has led to an outpouring of praise from most quarters, except for the one that should matter to him the most – the students of Pune's Film and Television Institute of India.
The cheerleaders are helmed by his wife Kirron Kher, fellow actor and currently member of Parliament for the Lok Sabha from Chandigarh for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre.
Congratulations my dear @AnupamPkher for becoming FTII Chairman ! Know you will do a great job !
— Kirron Kher (@KirronKherBJP) October 11, 2017
A chorus of approval followed, typically summarised by this piece, hailing the elevation of the actor as a step in the right direction. Few would disagree with the fact that Kher has a much more illustrious career than his predecessor Gajendra Chauhan.
A member of the BJP, Chauhan was appointed to the role in 2014, a decision that was widely criticised as a politically partisan move to 'saffronise' the campus. Apart from objecting to Chauhan's ideological leanings, FTII students and alumni pointed out his singularly unimpressive output as an actor.
Compared to towering film personalities like Gulzar, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who were allegedly in the running for the job, Chauhan seemed like a shockingly ill-judged choice, raising suspicions of nepotism driven by a political agenda.
In Kher's case, at least his acting record is indisputably solid: over 500 films, in several languages, both in industries in India and beyond, scores of stage appearances, and an active engagement with cinema. But, as any sensible employer should know, a shining CV doesn't necessarily make for an ideal candidate.
That statement is especially true in the case of those pursuing creative professions like acting or teaching, which involve an emotional investment quite unlike the impersonal chore of, say, a book-keeper's, and the interplay of one's personal politics and belief systems in the professional sphere.
Kher's public image over the last two years, gleaned from his social media activities, smacks of a stridently pro-BJP agenda.
In 2015, when a group of writers, film personalities and artists decided to return awards conferred on them by the government to protest against the rise of intolerance in India, Kher's response was tellingly abrasive.
— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPkher) October 28, 2015
Instead of engaging with the substance of the gesture by the leading lights of India's intelligentsia, Kher decided to attack them for their criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose watch, as chief minister, Gujarat saw one of the worst communal riots in modern India in 2002.
What's worse, instead of choosing the path of civilised debate and dissent, Kher decided to lump them into a conglomerate — the "#AwardWapsi gang" — trivialising their stance and its import. It's not that the matter ended with a sly tweet and an emoticon — Kher actually took to the streets to emphasise his disdain for the lot.
But this was only the beginning.
In February 2016, with student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), taking the nation to storm with their anti-establishment politics, Kher let loose another malignant remark on Twitter, comparing the young men to cockroaches and vermin that need purging from people's home. He urged for a nationwide "pest control" programme, piling vile allegory upon allegory.
Days later, he tweeted photographs from the JNU campus, where he addressed the students and "purified" it of anti-national slogans chanted earlier by crying "Bharat Mata ki Jai".
While love for one's country is a perfectly reasonable feeling to cherish in oneself, it is unfair to impose it as the only acceptable standard of patriotism on others. Given his fractious association with students and institutes of learning, Kher should tread with care as he takes over the running of FTII.
Kher has repeatedly baulked at the slightest hint of the criticism of the ruling government and its policies. Be it to support PM Modi's decision to demonetise high-value currencies last November, which was greeted by widespread public panic, or to abuse 20-year-old pacifist Gurmehar Kaur, he has left no stone unturned to make his allegiances known.
But aside from his right-leaning politics, there is a much bigger concern with Kher's appointment, which his troopers seemed to have conveniently overlooked. He is the founder of a private acting school in Mumbai, which presents a conflict of interest for his new role at FTII — as though being married to a politician, who is a member of the ruling government, and being appointed to run a government-backed institution wasn't problematic enough already.
Kher isn't bothered much. As he told The Quint, "I am not worried about any clash of interest. I prioritise my various commitments in a very systematic way." Be that as it may, the students of FTII aren't making matters easy for him.
Within 24 hours of Kher's appointment, they have written an open letter to him, outlining the glitches in the system they are plagued with. From short-term courses running for commercial gains to irregularities over the hiring of staff to the allocation of funds for purchase of equipment to the change in the syllabus, the problems are manifold and require urgent attention.
Hopefully, the new chairman, currently busy pinning tweets of gratitude and basking in the cacophony of applause around him, will pay heed to their demands before long.
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