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A Gripping Deep Dive Into the 2015 FTII Students' Agitation

Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s one-of-a-kind volume – John-Ghatak-Tarkovsky: Citizens, Filmmakers, Hackers – is a fairly comprehensive, non-linear chronicle of the strike.

For 139 days in mid-2015, students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) were on strike, an action initially triggered by the appointment of an unworthy individual to the post of Chairman and a few more of even less distinction to the Governing Council. At the heart of Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s one-of-a-kind volume – John-Ghatak-Tarkovsky: Citizens, Filmmakers, Hackers – is a fairly comprehensive, non-linear chronicle of the strike. He brings to this task his intimate familiarity with the institution, its faculty, and its graduates from the earliest years of its existence to the present.

Rajadhyaksha presents conversations he has had with the principal protagonists of the strike, he cites from the films some of them made during the strike where they themselves and others spoke about their fears, expectations, their determination not to yield to the ‘carrots’ being held out to them.

Alongside the wall of the main theatre, FTII, protest placards in front of the iconic drawings of Ritwik Ghatak and images from his films. Courtesy the publisher.

While this is the core of the book, the primary motivation for writing it, it is by no means the lion’s share of it. The whole thing is an intricate network of intersecting diachronic narratives and synchronic reportage encompassing the history of the FTII as an institution along with the nearby National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the careers of FTII graduates in and out of the mainstream industry, the history of strikes at the FTII, the history of student strikes in general and especially the era of student actions across the country – Jadavpur, Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – of which the FTII strike was an early signal. Government policy measures, including committee reports, acts of parliament, censorship laws – an abiding concern of the author who has written extensively on these matters – prove salient to the many stories he interweaves here.

July 21, 2015: Day 40 of the strike. The installation at the gate, with an executive chair on which is placed a large rock, alongside a milestone indicating the day, beside which sits a ‘sentry; made up of celluloid film stripe. Towering over it all is the gigantic question mark. Five days later, an ABVP group destroyed this installation, but it was up again the following day. Courtesy the publisher.

And there is a telling history of cancelled screenings that is as central to these stories as it is to the republic’s rapidly declining political health: these too are detailed and some of them are, in retrospect, the immediate risk to lives having passed, quite amusing, such as the Kirori Mal college screening of Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha
John-Ghatak-Tarkovsky: Citizens, Filmmakers, Hackers
Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation-Tulika Books, 2023

For once the cliché doesn’t seem inappropriate: this is the product of a labour of love. It is hard to think of anyone other than Rajadhyaksha undertaking such a unique project. The established distinctions between film studies, film history, film appreciation, film education are blurred, the industry, mainly Mumbai, features alongside the parallel cinema, the passage from celluloid to digital is captured in its own right, as much as for the vital role it began to play in the latter part of the strike period, marking a departure from the way the author handled the subject in his previous book Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid.

There are engaging and instructive profiles of the principal protagonists of the strike, Naveen Padmanabha, Ranjit Nair, Harishankar Nachimuthu, Vikas Urs, Kshama Padalkar, Kislay, Prateek Vats and as well as others who were not centrally involved in the strike –  some of them even unhappy with the turn of events – the films they made, the problems they faced as a strike team and as individuals. Older graduates or near graduates make their appearance too: Paresh Kamdar, Farida Mehta, but also Ritwik Ghatak, Kundan Shah, Sudhir Mishra, Girish Kasaravalli. Indeed, all of Chapter 3, with the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaro at its centre, is a delightful read. Cameras, from the Mitchell to the latest digital offering, play a key role in the strike itself.

June 19, 2015: filmmakers protest at the Town Hall, Bangalore, in solidarity with FTII students. Girish Kasaravalli speaking. Courtesy the publisher.

Although the book’s ecosystem has no place for close readings of films, Rajadhyaksha offers interesting takes on some of the graduates’ films, notably Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Oo (2019), seeing in them a commentary on the state of things at the institution as well as the country as a whole. There is a staggering wealth of detail in this work that can scarcely be summarised.

One of the difficulties of writing about an event like the FTII strike is that it is not sufficiently distant in time. Thus the story is presented as a chronicle, though not without extensive commentary. This time is still with us, the struggles that broke out then continue to flare up in institutions across the country – in the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) as I write this, students demanding action against sexual harassment have faced a hostile administration, while one of them has been assaulted by hooded men in the style of the JNU infiltration of a few years ago. But it is still worth noting the three to four years during which multiple strikes and movements erupted one after the other, connecting and supporting one another: Jadavpur University (Hokkolorob), Jamia, Hyderabad Central University (Rohith Vemula), JNU Freedom Square, Banaras Hindu University, then the anti-CAA movement and the farmers’ movement which besieged Delhi, not to mention the returning of awards.

What is surprising is that one of the first of these was the FTII strike. From the history of student strikes in FTII traced in the book (chapter 2) it is clear that most of them were confined to matters of an intra-institutional nature. It is only in 2015 that the strike acquired a wider significance of such magnitude, and became the harbinger of a season of struggles that have claimed many casualties, destroyed many futures but also stood as testament to the refusal to fall in line.

For Rajadhyaksha the FTII strike, and indeed all the other struggles discussed, exemplify the ‘networked protest’. The key word here is horizontalism. As he puts it: ‘As the agitations took to the streets in processions and occupy movements, they also brought into India what has come to be known worldwide as the networked protest, and by a term originally coined in Argentina in December 2001 as horizontalidad or horizontalism. Seeking to overcome the traditional hierarchies of organized, leader-driven political action, the effort to create new democratic social spaces was enabled by new technologies permitting horizontal peer-to-peer circulation, authorless memes, and the rapid movement – or what the 2019 Hong Kong protestors described as ‘being water’ – of data, ideas and human action.’ (p6)

Students and faculty of the K.R. Narayan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts come out in support of FTII students. Courtesy the publisher.

The Tahrir Square demonstration, the Occupy movement, both of which date to 2011 perhaps helped to spread this terminology. That vision of ultimate human autonomy where no one needs lead another along the right path or any path for that matter, is of course familiar to us from the socialist literature. It is the final goal of prophetic texts, even scientific ones such as those of Marx. What is new in the invocations of horizontality is the suggestion that such a state might already have been achieved. And yet the struggles continue. What are we to make of this paradox? This is not the place to go into a discussion of such matters. Suffice it to say that in celebrating horizontality serious theoretical questions may have been ignored. Consider the slogans, which are given their due place in Rajadhyaksha’s account, starting with the one that serves as the book’s title: John Ghatak Tarkovsky – We shall fight we shall win; Go back Chauhan, Ghatak was here!; Eisenstein, Pudovkin – We shall fight we shall win. Were there no leaders of the FTII strike?

Day 90, 9 September 2015. Poster by an increasingly desperate students association, as three students announce a hunger strike as a last-ditch effort to get the government to respond. Courtesy the publisher.

In conclusion, I must draw attention to the book as artifact. I have seen nothing that even remotely resembles it. Photographs in a book, of which there are plenty here, are nothing new. Nor is the inclusion of reproductions of archival documents, which fill many pages of this volume. (My favourite is a handwritten ‘chart of the genesis of FTII’ by the pioneer of film appreciation, Satish Bahadur). What is new are the number of QR codes which take you to more documents, articles, reports and books easily amounting to a few thousand pages. Is it a book? Is it an archive? Is it an art installation? Hard to say, but it is a gripping documentation of an important moment in recent history.

M. Madhava Prasad is with the Department of Cultural Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.