I was visiting one of my friends studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and my short stay at FTII happened gladly and concurrently with the protests there. On arriving at FTII from a long bus journey, it was certain that the student body unanimously had reservations about Gajendra Chauhan being appointed as the chairperson. While reading the papers superficially I thought this uproar and event had to do with a member of the BJP heading this institute. But submerged in between the current chaos and humdrum life inside FTII, one got a deeper sense of the whole issue.

FTII is one of the premiere training institutes for training in courses related to film and television. It was established in 1960 on the erstwhile Prabhat Studio in Pune. Earlier known as Film Institute of India, it was renamed in 1971 as the Film and Television Institute of India. FTII has a small campus that spreads along a length of about 900 meters, with studios and teaching rooms and hostels that align themselves on the left and right. The campus when I reached it initially, felt claustrophobic. There were all these opinions hovering around in the college and the college just felt too small. There was chatter of all kinds about things that the students demanded, about various issues that they want to confront. I was muddled in between, trying to holistically understand the chaos and the demands of the students. Soon I began a conversation and began interacting with the students about their institute, about their protest and began to find myself merging in with the crowd. The smallness began to fade and I found myself feeling comfortable sitting there, feeling one with their voice and their movement.

There were voices that rose and said it isn’t that Gajendra Chauhan belongs to BJP. However, his qualifications must speak for the post that he is sitting at, and in that regard, he is under-qualified and cannot be a chairperson to such an institute. Renowned people like Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, U R Ananmurthy and Saeed Akhtar Mirza have been appointed as chairmen to this institute earlier. Their dignified qualifications speak for themselves. Gopalkrishnan has won Dadasahebphalke Award, Padmavibhushan and 16 National Film Awards. Shyam Benegal has won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padmabhushan, 19 National Film Awards and has also been nominated for Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals. Girish Karnad has won the Jnanipith award, Padmabhushan, the Sahitya Academy Award, the Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and 9 National Film Awards. U R Anantamurthy has won the Jnanpith Award, Padmabhushan, Sahitya Academy Award and has been nominated for Man Booker Prize. Saeed Akhtar Mirza has won 3 National Film Awards, has directed the TV series called ‘Nukkad’ and has been the director of well acknowledged movies like, ‘Albert Pinto ko gussa kyun ata hai’ and ‘Mohan Joshi haazir ho.’ The current Gajendra Chauhan is most well known for his role as ‘Yudhisthira’ in the television series ‘Mahabharata.’ He is also known for his roles in movies like ‘Tumko na bhool payenga’ ‘Baghban’ and ‘Awaaz.’

In FTII protesting the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as far as his qualifications are concerned, I second their motion and it’s only obvious everyone would wonder about the obscurities of this appointment too.

To add to this, the current appointment has been rather murky. The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the current chairman came as a shock to the students, as there are many other dignified and respectable candidates who can chair the institute. There were names floating around like Jahnu Barua, Santosh Sivan and Rajkumar Hirani as possible future chairmen, though Gajendra Chauhan whose lacking credentials don’t match up to the institute’s history of chairmen was then appointed. Apart from his meek role in films, Gajendra Chauhan’s political membership also raises a lot of concerns. An academic institute is a space which seeks to open its eyes to the world around. It’s a space where we re-search the already present truths lying under dust. It’s a space where we learn to speak a certain language, where we learn to question and where we open ourselves to newer ideas and viewpoints. In as much as art is a medium of expression, art institute seems to and seeks to do both simultaneously, find truths and express them. Why must this space then stand under an umbrella of any political party? In as much as academia seeks to be an open space that re-searches, re-finds and re-learns, it must never be colored by any political party or political views.

Further in conversation with the FTII students, it came to my knowledge that ever since 2012 there have been announcements and declarations that this institute will be given the status of an Institute of National Importance. Institutes, once given the due regard and status of an Institute of National Importance, function slightly more autonomously. Although announcements were made nothing has been done thus far about this. I do wonder why… And thus, the students rise and raise their voice against this pitted force that they must resist.

On the two days that I was there (June 28th and June 29th) I attended musical and cultural performances by artists supporting the movement. Artists, musicians, students and humans together sat under a dark-blue sky and shared words and notes and rhythm of which every beat, was beating of freedom. Pamphlets were passed out on those two days which said, “Humne yeh suna hai, ki jinko chuna hain, voh kehne yeh lage hain, ki puchna mana hai.” We sang songs together that screamed unity and that screamed, ‘awaaz do, hum ek hain.’ Many such artists like Piyush Mishra, Uday Benegal of Indus Creed, Vasu Dixit of Swarathma, Altered Theory (an alternate rock band), Sipa Dance Troupe, Newedge Rock Band, Deepali Sahay, Airplane Poetry Movement and Arpit Singh, came together and performed in unison to demonstrate their support for this ongoing protest for the appointment of the new chairperson. It was then while watching the protest in action under this vast dark sky that this 900 meter campus felt like a very comfortable space and I too began to feel that now an outsider was about to impinge on this very open space. I too began to feel an impingement on open spaces that seek to question, learn, grow and question even more. I am skeptical of this appointment. But with this appointment, I too wonder why? Is this a slow calculated death of voice, reason and question? Is this a painful cancer of our freedom of speech? Should any political party be involved with heading an academic institute? Should a political party be involved with the appointment of a candidate of any institute? Is this a slow impingement upon liberal academic spaces? ‘Why Gajendra Chauhan’ is then not just a question about why this appointment, but it symbolizes a wider protest about why this invasion and encroachment upon these liberal spaces in these many slow, shadowy and subtle ways.

In as much as, “sawaal puchna mana hai,” this protest doesn’t just call for attention to FTII. Of course, it does do that… but the protest is one for all, as we’re all under this vast free liberal sky who must then, when it rains and pours, ask, why? Why these obscurities? Why Gajendra Chauhan?

I’m a regular student at an ordinary college but scared about my future as a student who can question and learn and in hope to keep these open liberal spaces as they are, I too want to raise my voice now and question this force above us and hope to reach others to equally get up, stand up and ask WHY?

“Hum dekhenge, lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge, woh din ke jis ka wada hai, jo lauh-e-azl mein likha hai…”

(Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

- (This article is an opinion piece that features on the Young Citizen page).