The Wisdom Tree Revolution
The FTII freedom struggle was powered by the sheer love for cinema. A longform diary account captures the unfortunate sequence of events over the past one year
Ritwick Goswami Pune
June 11, 2015
The night is uncomfortably sultry. My friends and I – all students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune – have stepped out of an on-campus screening of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film. We are engaged in deep conversation about how various governments around the world have arm-twisted their ways into curbing artistic expression, an extension of a conversation about Panahi’s house arrest and filmmaking ban. We run into some of our seniors, and are informed of a “very important General Body Meeting at 10 pm” that we must attend. We ask what the urgent matter is, and are informed that certain personalities with contentious credibility have been appointed to the Governing Council of the institute, and the students’ body needs to decide its stand on the particular matter. Among them, stressed our seniors, is a certain Narendra Pathak, during whose tenure, as the president of its Maharashtra chapter, activists of the ABVP had beaten up students of “our very same institute”, following a function organised by the Kabir Kala Manch (KMM) in August 2013.
Later that night, most of the students on campus convene in front of the mess, almost all of us wearing looks of confusion. As light is shed on the many facts regarding the appointments, the confusion slowly starts to change to outrage.
We continue having our lectures and sessions with luminaries from various fields under the Wisdom Tree. By now, the mangoes of June have been replaced by a dull September dust on the leaves
We are told that among the appointees is Anagha Ghaisas, a filmmaker, who, according to a court of law, “has not taken education in film shooting, editing and directing, does not have technical knowledge regarding making of a film…” , and is, by self-admission, “100 per cent RSS and proud of it”. There are some others, like Rahul Solapurkar, Pranjal Saikia and Shailesh Gupta with proven Right-wing links, and very limited credibility and body of work. Most worrisome, however, is the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan – a mediocre actor best known for having played Yudishthira in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, who followed it up with little else apart from appearances in obscure B-grade films, and an allegiance to the current BJP-RSS regime in power – as the chairman of the FTII Governing Council.
The appointments seem unfit for an institute of such credibility and repute as the FTII. They also appear to be another in a series of appointments (by the Central government led by Narendra Modi) of mediocre personalities allied to Hindutva and the Right-wing to top-ranking positions at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the National Book Trust (NBT), the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research (ICSSR), and the Central Board of Film Certification. As my mind races back to Jafar Panahi from earlier in the evening, the students’ body decides to call for a strike to protest against these appointments, starting the very next day.
July 3, 2015
We have been on strike for 22 days. It has been 22 days of intense mayhem on campus. The entire nation is lauding us as being the first students’ body to stand up to the government which is making politically motivated appointments on campuses across the country. Eminent filmmaker Jahnu Barua, cinematographer Santhosh Sivan and actress Pallavi Joshi have submitted their resignations from the FTII Governing Council to show solidarity with the students. We have received solidarity from universities and campuses in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, Rohtak, Bengaluru, and at least eight different towns of Kerala.
We have been maintaining complete political autonomy and neutrality, and have adopted a stance of ‘#NoColor’ and have been chanting ‘John, Ghatak, Tarkovsky, we shall fight, we shall win’. This was meant to convey how resolute we are, in not letting the legacy of Ritwik Ghatak, Andrei Tarkovksy, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Saeed Akhtar Mirza be taken over by Chauhan and his men, to convey how important the sanctity of the campus is – where we respect plurality of thoughts, ideas and identities: something which is definitely endangered by these appointments.
The smear campaign against the students started right after Arnab Goswami made #FTII Mahabharat a national issue
We have also been witnessing an intense media circus, some very convenient twisting of facts. The popular media outlets have painted it to be a Gajendra Chauhan vs FTII issue, even though we have been, from the beginning, maintaining that our problem is not with the person, but with the process of appointment. We have also been using the strike to engage productively with each other on campus. All the students on campus regularly gather under the Wisdom Tree – the mango tree under which Ghatak would hold classes – and engage productively with lecturers, authors, musicians and academicians. From journalists P Sainath to poet-singer-actor Piyush Mishra, we have been having everyone visit our campus to interact with the students.
With support from artistes and film personalities across India, a delegation of students led by veterans Fareeda Mehta, Paresh Kamdar and Resul Pookutty are visiting Delhi today, to meet with Minister of Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley, with the hope of making him see a point in our strike, and of some fruitful resolution.
It is early evening, and on a screen projected on the famous Ritwik Ghatak wall under the Wisdom Tree, a piece of news breaks our heart. The delegation, fresh out of the meeting, speaking to the TV cameras, informs us that the meeting has been unsuccessful.
August 19, 2015
Along with about 40 other students and faculty members, I stand in front of the Deccan Gymkhana Police Station at around two in the morning. Only two hours back, in an act reeking of cowardice, five students of our institute were picked up by the police in a midnight crackdown on the campus. There are charges of rioting, unlawful assembly and obstructing a public servant from discharging duty against 17 students, out of whom five have been detained.
Two days back, on August 17, a few students had met the newly appointed Director, Prashant Pathrabe, in his office, to convince him to delay the execution of an official notice regarding the assessment of the diplomas of the 2008 batch on a pro-rata basis. This notice was part of a covert larger plan to demonise the students at a national level (since, obviously, a significant group of opinion leaders and the national intelligentsia had been supporting our demands) by highlighting that students from the 2008 batch were still on campus, when, in reality, the failings of the 2008 batch were largely born out of administrative ineptitude. The smear campaign against the students started right after Arnab Goswami made #FTII Mahabharat a national issue.
We have been accused of drug abuse, of prostitution, of being Naxals (by Subramanian Swamy), of having assaulted an employee of the institute (one with very strong links to the same political party we are fighting). Completely unfounded figures (per-student-expenditure-incurred-by-the-government) have been cited and we have also been threatened with mass rustication. However, we all remain united. A literal show of hands conducted by the outgoing institute director proves that every student on campus was in support of the decision to continue with the strike, despite the threats.
Plagued by all this, and also because our march to Parliament in Delhi had failed to produce any resolution, the students’ meeting with the director ended up in heated exchanges, with the students refusing to let Pathrabe leave his office without any commitment to delay the project assessments. The situation turned ugly. The students had formed a human chain around (and a safe distance away from) the director, even as the police was called in. The police mercilessly thrashed the students forming the human chain.
Even though it was us students who had been manhandled by the police, the ones being arrested are still us.
Most of us decide to spend the night in front of the police station, even as the nation erupts in outrage, with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promising asylum to FTII students in Delhi.
Meanwhile, we continue having our lectures and sessions with luminaries from various fields under the Wisdom Tree. By now, the mangoes of June have been replaced by a dull September dust on the leaves.
September 10, 2015
Patience is running thin among the students. Multiple requests to the government to grant us an ear have failed. It has been 91 days of strike, and there has been no communication from the government to the students.
Our beloved professor of Art Direction, Abhijit Das, has just ended a three-day hunger strike to help with the resolution of the crisis, and we have written hundreds of ‘Letters to PM’ seeking redressal. With no one budging and no response in sight, three students – Himanshu, Alok, and Hilal, go on a hunger strike, with the other students on a wakeful watch. Meanwhile, we continue having our lectures and sessions with luminaries from various fields under the Wisdom Tree. By now, the mangoes of June have been replaced by a dull September dust on the leaves.
The seed of this revolution lies in love. Love for the ‘other’, love for humanity, love for the arts, love for freedom and individual sovereignty. And, most of all, love for cinema
January 7, 2016
We had ended the 139-day strike on October 29 after having been firm in our stand for four-and-a-half months, to go back to academics but with no intent of departing from our demands. “The strike ends, but the protests will continue,” we had said, clearly and categorically.
The administration has painted over all the slogans and paintings we had put up during the strike. The wall of the production building (housing Prabhat Studio 1), which had borne quotes by Ghatak and Paolo Pasolini are back to bearing the pre-strike untarnished shade of maroon. All of this is in preparation for Chauhan and his posse’s first visit to the campus since their appointment.
We stand heartbroken. Nothing worked for us. The hunger strike didn’t. The multiple rounds of meetings with delegations representing the government between late September and late October didn’t. All the political, academic and social support didn’t.
At 10 in the morning, in line with our promise to not stop protesting, we arrive at the gate of the institute to protest against the incoming Chauhan and Co. We try to walk into the gate, as the police forms a wall against us, pushing us away from our own campus. Soon enough, the wall turns into a circle around us, and within 30 minutes, most of us have been shoved around, pushed and beaten up by the police. Forty students are detained, while Chauhan and friends have been greeted by ‘dhol-nagada’ by hired performers.
We feel like a defeated Order of the Phoenix, mourning their loss to a band of Death Eaters. We are dawdling listlessly around the Wisdom Tree – the heart of our revolution – in the twilight hour, trying to partake in each other’s despair
The 40 detained students return to campus post-sunset. The mood is glum; we stand defeated, beaten, broken, and damaged.
We wonder: “Was all this for nothing?”
“This is the sun setting on an era of FTII,” says somebody.
We feel like a defeated Order of the Phoenix, mourning their loss to a band of Death Eaters. We are dawdling listlessly around the Wisdom Tree – the heart of our revolution – in the twilight hour, trying to partake in each other’s despair.
Suddenly, a group of students sitting under the Wisdom Tree starts singing ‘Chheen kelenge azadi’. The chant grows louder and louder as, one by one, all of us join in. We then march to the gate of our campus, invoking John, Ghatak and Tarkovsky all over again, screaming the same slogans we had on Day One of the strike, walking on that same shadowy little lane between the gate and the Wisdom Tree.
Nothing has changed for us, we realise.
The protests shall continue, and not just in our hearts, we realise.
We will stand by each other, and fight tooth and nail to defend our institute, our alma mater – the campus that is home, that is family to us. Any threat to the freedom of being, the freedom of existing that this space offers, shall have to rip through us, no matter how many times we are put behind bars. This is because this revolution isn’t born out of political ambition, it isn’t born out of social greed, it isn’t born out of hatred towards the other. The seed of this revolution lies in love.
Love for the ‘other’, love for humanity, love for the arts, love for freedom and individual sovereignty. And, most of all, love for cinema.