PUNE — At the World Hindu Congress in Chicago earlier this month, actor Anupam Kher, one of the speakers, was described as the chairperson of FTIB—Film and Television Institute of Bharat, rather than Film and Television Institute of India as the 58-year-old institute is officially known.
Dattatreya Hosabale, joint general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), found nothing controversial in this: Bharat was "the Hindi translation of India". There was, however, no explanation as to why only one word in the institute's name was translated.
The use of "Bharat" in the place of India offers a glimpse at how the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to bend the free-thinking culture of FTII to fit their ideological canon.
Current FTII chairperson Kher's wife, Kirron, is the BJP Member of Parliament from Chandigarh, and Kher himself has repeatedly endeared himself to the ruling party—most famously by leading a pro-government march against his fellow artistes.
Under Kher's watch, students allege, the administration has sought to censor all forms of intellectual exploration to the extent of allowing plain-clothed policemen onto campus to monitor those watching a documentary on the Kabir Kala Manch, a Dalit cultural group.
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"There's a climate of censorship and it manifests in various forms," said Robin Joy, FTII's student president, explaining that the students from the 2016 and 2017 batch have been on strike for 30 days now to oppose the "ideological imposition" by the administration as well as other issues relating to infrastructure. "It's ironic that a liberal arts school had cops policing what we watch."
It's ironic that a liberal arts school had cops policing what we watch
Joy told HuffPost India that the administration is now closely monitoring the films students watch, and has issued directives that only movies with explicit approval from the administration may be screened in the classroom theatre. The administration has also been quick to deny permission to any events featuring speakers or performers critical of the current regime.
Filmmakers such as Kamal Swaroop (a vocal critic of the BJP government), Paresh Kamdar, and Fareeda Mehta, all of whom who were part of FTII's visiting faculty and supported a long student strike in 2015, are now part of an unofficial 'blacklist' and aren't welcome on the campus anymore.
Kher did not respond immediately to a message seeking comment. FTII's dean Amit Tyagi was on leave and acting dean Raj Shekhar told HuffPost India that he wasn't "authorised" to engage with the media and that if any other faculty members did so, it would be out of "sheer ignorance".
A detailed email with queries has been sent to FTII director Bhupendra Kainthola, who said he would respond as soon as he can. This story will be updated once we receive his response.
In the first week of September, the FTII administration abruptly cancelled the screening of a documentary on the Dalit cultural group Kabir Kala Manch. The Pune-based group, which uses poetry and songs to talk about social injustice and caste-based oppression, has been targeted by multiple governments over their performances.
While the students alleged that the administration gave in to pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the institute has denied the claim, saying the screening was cancelled because the organisers hadn't asked for permission and the film didn't have a Central Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) certificate. A CBFC certificate is not necessary for private screenings.
The 23-minute documentary, called Hora, was directed by Harishankar Nachimuthu, a former FTII student.
In 2015, Nachimuthu had led a 139-day student strike to protest the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, an actor best known for playing Hindu mythological characters on television, as the institute's chairman.
Nachimuthu's film was eventually screened on 10 September, but only to a select group of students who later discovered that two plain-clothed police personnel had entered the screening room. The cops, the students claim, left the venue after they were confronted.
According to an email seen by HuffPost India, the institute's dean told an alumnus that the film couldn't be screened because they weren't told about the presence of "100 Dalit activists" at the event and that their presence could create a 'law and order' situation. HuffPost India could not independently verify this.
In August 2016, the administration came up with a rule that revoked students' free access to the Classroom Theatre. This happened a day after the higher-ups found out that the students were conducting a session called 'Retracing Freedom' that included films made by current and former students about the 2015 FTII protests as well as other titles from around the world.
"Earlier, we used to take the keys from the security officer and have our film screenings. But after the session on Retracing Freedom, we were instructed to take special permissions from the dean, the director, the registrar and the security, to watch a movie. They need the name of the film, the synopsis, everything," said Joy. "It was only after we protested that it came down to one single permission, from the dean."
However things were about to get worse. FTII's famed midnight movie screenings, which would lead to heated debates about the merits and shortcomings of the film, became the first casualty of the draconian rule.
"It's how we learnt and grew," 27-year-old Navneetha Krishnan, a final-year direction student, said. "That whole culture has disappeared. The process to procure permission is tedious and even if we were to make peace with it, why should we accept this and normalise the idea of seeking approval for what we want to watch? It's a way of censoring. How can a film school do that to its students?"
Krishnan said the students fear that the censorship will eventually reach the scripts they are writing. "Right now, it's about what we watch. I won't be surprised if soon, they will want to monitor the content of our scripts."
Right now, it's about what we watch. I won't be surprised if soon, they will want to monitor the content of our scripts
A month later, in September 2016, when the students' association invited the musician Delhi Sultanate, known for critiquing the establishment through music, permission was denied on flimsy grounds. "They said they needed to be alerted 15 days in advance to figure out the logistics. Delhi Sultanate didn't need any complicated logistics. He only needed a power point," Krishnan said.
Last year, on Ambedkar Jayanti, the students were planning to organise a two-day symposium on the theme 'Dalit Expression In Indian Art, Cinema And Literature'. After initially giving an oral confirmation, FTII director Kainthola withdrew his approval after he received a list of invitees, which included prominent Dalit filmmakers, artists and photographers.
"He told us we could have the symposium for two hours with two guests that he handpicked. We had a detailed plan in place for a two day discussion. How could it be done in a couple of hours?" Joy said.
The students defied the order and went ahead with their plan as they had already secured permission to use the CRT. The next day, a notice was issued penalising the students, citing "breach of trust".
After this, the FTII administration said that apart from the earlier rule about names of films being submitted, permission to screen them at the in-house theatre would be granted only if the request was made 48-hours prior. Students said this was put in place so the administration could scrutinise the content of the film they were planning to watch.
"Basically, it's an unofficial censor body within FTII," Joy said.
Aditya V, a second-year student of cinematography, said that during the orientation of the new batch in August this year, students protested against the institute's decision which asked them to seek prior permission to watch movies. According to the students, the FTII director said that they could only watch films that uphold "the law of the land".
"It's very clear that this government is threatened by art. Art, whether it's literature, music, or cinema, can sway public opinion and this regime want to suppress it at all costs. The sad part is they are using State apparatus to do this," Krishnan said.
Big Brother Is Watching
It's not just the censorship but also the surveillance that's making several students uncomfortable. FTII is patrolled round the clock not by contractual watchmen but by Maharashtra Security Force Guards—a heavily armed special reserve force that have the power to arrest people and even discharge their weapons if needed.
Amartya Ray, a second-year student, told HuffPost India that the idea was to intimidate the students.
"We often see them (cops) shoot us through their cell phones. Once, when we asked why were they doing so, the guard replied saying that they have orders. When we protested further, as shooting videos can get very uncomfortable, especially for women, they said that they aren't answerable to us," Sen said. "It all seeps down from top-up. Our director refuses to meet us. He doesn't see any merit in having a dialogue with students who may have grievances," he said.
The campus, students claim, is also being used to churn out films that promote government campaigns.
In May, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, started a Twitter campaign, #HumFitTohIndiaFit. As Bollywood and sports stars began uploading videos for the #FitnessChallenge, FTII students were asked to make a short film on the campaign. "Blatant propaganda," said one of the protesters, a third-year student who did not want to be named. "The government basically wants to use FTII as its PR cell while ignoring real issues."
This real issue, the students say, is the lack of a syllabus, something that should be given to the students at the beginning of the course. Third-year direction students are currently on strike as their syllabus is unfinished and are demanding eight-week lectures that specifically address core topics.
"We shouldn't have to fight for our education. We have worked hard to reach here and this is what we get? Not even a detailed syllabus?" complained Rajesh Rajan, a final-year student. "This administration has no vision or planning whatsoever. It's disheartening."
The absence of an academic council to act as a bridge between the students and the authorities has worsened matters.
The students say the administration blames the infrastructural collapse within the institute on paucity of funds. The sports ground is routinely rented out as a parking lot while the swimming pool has been in disuse for over two years. But when it comes to trivial matters, funds miraculously appear.
Ahead of a visit by spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev (popularly known as Sadhguru), originally scheduled for Wednesday, FTII spent considerable amount of money to spruce up the campus. The visit has since been cancelled due to the atmosphere on the campus.
"The good thing that has come out of his planned visit is that a garbage pile outside the boys hostel was finally cleaned up," Joy told HuffPost India.
Students also protested against the whitewashing of an iconic pond, which was being done ahead of the spiritual guru's visit. Due to stiff opposition, work was eventually stopped. "They don't realise the pond looks the certain way because it carries a certain aesthetic appeal. It was installed by the great V Shantaram (Marathi filmmaker) for students to use it as a backdrop in movies. Many have been shot there. Now if you paint it all white, how's it going to add any creative value to a frame? Instead of focusing on real issues, like the dire state of the projection system, lack of hard drives, they are doing ridiculous things such as these," added Sen, the second-year student.
Last month, The Indian Expressreported that FTII authorities were spending funds meant for academic activities on "erecting replicas of monuments... to celebrate national days". On 26 January, FTII installed a giant replica of the Cellular Jail with a picture of Hindutva exponent VD Savarkar.
Students from the SC/ST/OBC communities are particularly affected by the institute's red-tapism. According to a government circular dated 2003, Maharashtra students from the OBC community are eligible for a 50% waiver on their tuition fee. However, two OBC students told HuffPost India that they were still waiting for the money to be reimbursed.
One of the students said on condition of anonymity: "I have taken a loan to pay my fees here. According to the government circular, they can't take the entire fees (from students). But they did, saying 50% will be reimbursed later. The interest on my loan is rising but the money from FTII hasn't come."
Both said that no student in the OBC/SC/ST category has received the money since 2014.
"I am from a poor background and that money is important for me. If I had received it, half my loan would have been repaid. But it doesn't look like we are going to get it anytime soon", said the student cited above.
On the FTII campus on Tuesday, one banner seemed to communicate the students' frustration with the government and administration best: 'Gai Hamari Mata Hai, Humein Cinema Nahi Aata Hai, Kyunki Yahan Sikhaya Nahi Jaata Hai (Cow is our mother, we don't know cinema because it is not taught here)'.