The heat is on: why FTII students are escalating their fight

What began as a straightforward protest against questionable appointments to the Film and Television Institute of India Society - the primary governing body of FTII - has turned into something with much bigger stakes.

It's now a fight for the autonomy and sanctity of educational and cultural institutions across the country. And it has the support of the student fraternity from across the country, not just FTII itself.

On Monday, 3 August, a group of FTII students marched from Jantar Mantar to Parliament Street in Delhi, demanding the attention of the Information & Broadcasting ministry, which is responsible for the recent appointments.

Along with them marched hundreds of supporters: students from every major university in Delhi, filmmakers, arts practitioners of various stripes, and angry Delhiites who felt a connection to the cause.

In the days leading up to the march, a group of FTII students leading the protest, some of whom spoke to Catch, were in Delhi, canvassing support at other institutions of higher learning. Their protest resonated everywhere they went.

To understand why it has captured the imagination of so many, one need only zoom out a little from the protest, and look at the context in which it is happening.

Since it came to power, the Modi government has made a slew of controversial interventions in cultural, academic and scientific institutions across the country. Viewed together, the pattern is impossible to ignore.

It points to a systematic compromise of the autonomy of some our most prestigious institutions, and to a troubling attempt by the state to exert control over knowledge and arts production in the country.

In this scenario, the FTII protests are far more than a student gripe over an administrative appointment. "This is a crisis in education," filmmaker Sanjay Kak told Catch at the Delhi protest. "It has fallen to the lot of the FTII students to pick up the banner."

Students from other institutions present at the protest felt the assault keenly.

Limited options

It's not just a question of solidarity. Options for those who aspire to study film craft are already limited. The crisis at FTII seems to limit the field further.

Arbab Ahmad, a second year student of English at Ramjas College in Delhi University, wants to pursue a career in filmmaking and had FTII in his sights, as it is one of the few quality institutions that are also subsidised. Now, he worries about where he'll go to pursue his goal:

There is a palpable sense among students that a particular mode of thinking is being enforced, and that this will curtail their own artistic expression.

Freedom of expression

Jasjit Singh, a Delhi University graduate who wants to pursue acting and has already begun the long application process to FTII, makes a passionate case for why an 'open field' is essential for artists.

Singh is unconvinced not of FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan's politics, but of his credentials, of his ability to provide a guiding vision for an institution of art education. His own vision hold freedom of expression foremost:

The power of imagination

Anishaa Tavag, masters student at JNU in arts and aesthetics, holds that creative thought and free expression are fundamental to art. This is not simply an intrinsic value.

Art, says Tavag, is all about imagination. It is the best way we have to imagine our world differently, which is the first step on the path to changing it:

The erosion of campus life

For many students from other institutions, the crisis at FTII speaks to an erosion of the character of campus life. If nowhere else, they suggest, at least the university campus should be a space of free thought and expression.

For students of Kirorimal College in Delhi University, this issue is especially fresh. Only a few days ago, a screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai by KMC's film society, Montage, was disrupted by members of the ABVP.

Two students from KMC articulated their concern over this worrying trend of intrusion into campus activity: Vedanth Govi, a member of Montage, and Vidita Priyadarshini, who heads Parivartan - The Gender Forum.

Vedanth and Vidita hold what they learn outside the classroom to be as essential to the college experience as what they learn inside it.

Artistic pursuits and spaces are especially precious, says Vedant, because they allow for the articulation of contrarian views and counternarratives, where you can contribute to the larger discourse.

And if this can't happen on a campus, says Vidita, how can we hope to see it happen in society at large?

Education and 'the real world'

Nina Sud, masters student at the Faculty of Arts at Delhi University, points out that campus life is not at all insulated from the outside world. The politically-motivated appointments at FTII and her own university, the revision of textbooks, are evidence of that.

If students are to take what they learn in classrooms of campus, she says, they will need strong educational spaces that promote that, and people leading those spaces who can inspire students.

Controlling intellectual activity

Art and culture, says Sud, are spaces where questions are raised, and those spaces are being suppressed.

Sud's observations are closely echoed by filmmaker Rahul Roy, who argues that such spaces are being suppressed precisely because that's where the questions come from.

Roy holds that a systematic destruction of institutions is underway. It is an effort, he says, to close down spaces of intellectual activity that may raise questions of the government's policies, and of the large-scale changes they want to bring in.

"It is an attempt to displace whatever place there was for a liberal progressive intellectual climate," says filmmaker Sanjay Kak.

Public opinion, says Kak, is on the side of the protestors. The state's interference has had the effect of "immeasurably strengthening an understanding of the processes that are underway in this country." Which is to say that, in tying to control institutions, the government has shown its cards.

The role of the state in art and education

It is not that the state should not have any role to play in institutions of art and education, Kak clarified. As there are public institutions health, there must also be public institutions of culture and learning.

Roy echoed this, and clarified the role of the state. There must be state support for institutions of art, he says, but the vision for those institutions must be determined by those within artistic fields. The government's job is not to have the vision, he says, but to make the vision happen.

This will always be tricky for a state that seeks to suppress political dissent or criticism, because, as noted theatre director Arvind Gaur puts it, "the point of theatre, cinema, art is to protest the ills of society." It is not, he said, to simply follow along behind politics.

Gaur was present at the protest along with Asmita, the Hindi theatre group he leads, which exemplifies art as activism.

And that's what it boils down to: art as activism. Art as protest. A government so ill at ease with activists, with protest, with criticism of any kind is understandably sceptical of artistic pursuits. It knows, as Roy pointed out, the potential art holds for resistance.

This, ultimately, is what the FTII protests are about: resisting this governments efforts to control what its students - to say nothing of its faculty, alumni and supporters - hold dear. Free thought and expression.

Videos: Adiba Muzaffar

Devika Bakshi

Devika Bakshi @devikabakshi