Art and Politics Collide in India
Resul Pookutty
Image Credit: Baiju K.

Art and Politics Collide in India


It is not usual in India to see an overwhelming majority of the film fraternity come out openly in support of a public movement, but in an unprecedented move, cinema artists from across India have put their weight behind the protesting students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. The students have been at war for over a month now over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the premier film institute.

The main grievance of the students is that Chauhan and his new governing team are lightweight film artists with no proven artistic credentials. The students say that the new chairman has been appointed because of his political affiliation with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, making this a political issue as well. The students claim that Chauhan’s appointment is aimed at advancing right-wing political ideology on a campus which has to date been a liberal space.

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Resul Pookutty, a sound engineer who won an Oscar in 2008 for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, about the protests. An alumnus  of the FTII, he has been standing behind the protesting students for a month and held talks with the government to resolve the issue. In the interview below, he discusses the complexities of the issue.

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The Diplomat: How do you look at the controversy regarding the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan at the chairman of the FTII?

Resul Pookutty: In one word, I would describe the appointment as appalling. He is a person who does not have any experience in world cinema. He does not know world cinema. A person whose only experience is working in television serials and low-grade movies — the appointment of such an individual for such a prestigious institution is one of the worst moves by the Indian government.

Second, for such a great institution as the FTII, which produces world-class cinematic genius every year, which has placed Indian cinema on the global map, sending Chauhan to lead is really in bad taste. The government admits it has made a bad choice, but it is not willing to correct that choice.

As an alumnus of the FTII, what was your reaction when you heard this name for the first time?

I am proud to say that I am a product of the FTII. What it stands for is far bigger than what we are debating right now. It is the only hope for a common Indian to study art. In a society where parents prefer their children to be engineers or doctors, picking up art is a bold move. You do it against the wishes of parents. You are not appreciated. But you go against the wishes of everyone because you have a dream. You want to be a Raju Hirani or a Sanjay Leela Bhansali [popular Bollywood directors]. A person like Gajendra Chauhan does not fit into this dream. So the Indian government’s attempts to push this man to the helm of the FTII is a non-negotiable and we as artists cannot accept this.

He is going to occupy the same chair that legends like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, and many other doyens have occupied. This is an insult to the traditions of the institute. Chauhan’s only qualification is his association with the ruling party in Delhi and his subscription to the majoritarian ideology. We oppose this attitude of the government. This attitude of the ruling party will end the dreams of the young generation.

Why are the protesters saying that the appointment is an attempt to curb the liberal space and inject an agenda into the curriculum?

At one level it is that. But at the other level, the newly appointed governing council members are saying that there is a need to teach nationalism to the students. This kind of statement makes it amply clear that the appointment has nothing to do with academics or art, but ideology — a certain kind of ideology in particular. The FTII has the toughest selection process and out of hundreds of applicants every year, only 60 get selected. The newly-appointed members call such students anti-national and Maoists. It is really unfortunate. The government forgets that these students are self-made human beings who have their sovereign values. The films they make reflect the secular and multicultural society they live in. These qualities have been hailed as the true representation of India, but today such beliefs and values are called anti-national by the members appointed by the ruling party. This is a dangerous trend and what we are up against. Such dangerous trends should not corrupt the mind of the people. We don’t want the education in this country to be colonized by a certain political line of thought. We have to fight for our own sovereign values and beliefs to save institutions like the FTII from the myopia of the current ruling party.

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