On the third day of the strike I went to Pune to show solidarity. It was very heartening to see the strong resistance being put up by the FTII students to the government’s attempt to foist a chairperson on them whose sole qualification seems to have been his loyalty to Narendra Modi. Much has been written about Gajendra Chauhan’s appearance in a soft-porn film, his dance-a-thon with Asaram Bapu, and his telemarketing of gems for the superstitious. But these are not my primary worries.
What I am worried about is the blatant effort of the present NDA regime to leave no government institution of any kind unmarked by saffron, even if they are running thin on qualified saffronites. Let us look at three recent appointments related to the cinema. The first was Pahlaj Nihalani who replaced the renowned Leela Samson as head of the CBFC. Admired by filmmakers, Leela Samson’s only blemish was that she had been appointed by the UPA. Nihalani’s only qualification on the other hand appears to have been that he made campaign films for the BJP and Modi. After ascending to his post Nihalani quickly became a laughing stock by banning from the screen a list of 20 words that included the word “Bombay”. Needless to say even the Bombay High Court could not have appeared on film had the 20-word ban not been revoked after a vociferous public outcry.
The next appointment was of Mukesh Khanna as chairperson of the Children’s Film Society (CFS). Khanna had played Bhishma and Shaktiman on TV but his obvious qualification was that he had campaigned for Modi, likening him to Shaktiman. He too was seen with Asaram Bapu and he too telemarketed rudrakshas. What he will market to the children of this country I shudder to think.
The similarities in the three appointments are stark. Not only are all three BJP loyalists, they are all nonentities and hence obviously amenable to pressure from the big bosses who appointed them. This is a familiar pattern in the Narendra Modi/Amit Shah governance model. Take the case of Smriti Irani who became the Minister for Human Resources and Development (HRD) despite having no higher education at all, and despite making false claims about her educational qualifications, including passing off a completion certificate for a six-day leadership course as a degree from Yale University! The HRD ministry has sweeping powers over the education system of this country and this appointment only makes sense if one understands that having an unqualified minister means that she is totally dependent on the orders she receives from the RSS, an organization with which her family has very strong links going back generations.
I have no animosity towards Gajendra Chauhan per se. In the TV show in which we came face to face, Chauhan seemed like a simple, even relatively likable, man whose main refrain was that his reel life and his real life were two different things. As he repeated “If the Ministry sees capabilities in me, I must have them.” Chauhan may indeed be what he says he is – a small-time actor trying to make a living. His body and facial language seemed to suggest “Mere pet pe kyoun laath maar rahe ho?”.
I sincerely wish him well. But I applaud the students of FTII for drawing their line in the sand about the need for a proper consultative process through which people are appointed to high public office in this country. If this particular appointment is rescinded and a consultative process takes its place, where students, FTII alumni, teachers, administrators and film practitioners of repute are involved, it will not only augur well for the FTII, it will also set a precedent for all future government appointments of this nature.
Perhaps that is the very fear that prevents the government from acting.
Anand Patwardhan is a documentary filmmaker.