Aspi Mistry - For a government that’s impervious to FTII protest, a warning from 1968 France

On September 10, three students went on an indefinite hunger strike, and as their health deteriorated, they were hospitalised one by one... From September 14, students from various educational establishments have been participating in token hunger strikes in solidarity with the agitating students of FTII. Students of the Jadavpur University, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Presidency University and Calcutta Medical College launched a six-hour hunger strike at the Jadavpur University campus.

NB: My wholehearted support and solidarity for the students on hunger-strike. I warn you that the consequences may be severe, authorities can be especially vicious when they are shown up to be both mistaken and arrogant - Dilip
Here are some things for you to read
SUHAS PALSHIKAR - There are many ways India mirrors the Emergency now

“Of course, that’s how life is. A turn of events may seem very small at the time it’s happening, but you never really know, do you? How can you?” – Louis Menand in The New Yorker

It happens all the time. But it never fails to surprise us. For me these reflections began a few weeks back when I saw Bernado Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. How serendipitously the dots seemed to connect the present with the past.

Bertolucci’s film is set in the Paris of 1968, and begins with the agitations around the abrupt removal of the director of the Cinémathèque Française, the now-legendary Henri Langlois. The struggle was for his reinstatement and for the removal of a man named Pierre Barbin. Barbin was an obscure and relatively inexperienced film-festival organiser, and Langlois was a culture hero even in the eyes of his adversaries.

This agitation in February 1968, which had the support of the world’s greatest film-makers, including Satyajit Ray, was the first shot fired across the bow of the Fifth Republic of France. It culminated in the larger student and trade union protests of May 1968 and the brief “exile” of President Charles de Gaulle, who fled from what seemed to be a revolution in the offing.

But I am getting ahead of myself. As I watched The Dreamers and saw the parallels with the agitation at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, I was at first reluctant to put it down. The hunger strikes at the FTII had not begun, and a committee from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had met with the striking students. It seemed at some point the government would back down. I decided to wait for a bit.

But as the agitation reaches its 100th day on Saturday, the analogy doesn’t seem so stretched. And so this might be a good point to pause and do a recap of the FTII story.

A students’ movement: The students of FTII have been on an indefinite strike since June 12, protesting against the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s appointment of actor-politician Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairman. The pinnacle of his career, according to him, is that he played Yudhisthira in the TV series Mahabharata. That was 25 years ago. Since then he has appeared in numerous television soaps and several "B" grade Bollywood films, which many describe as soft-porn.

Apart from this, the students are also protesting the appointments of four of the eight members of the reconstituted FTII panel. These include Anagha Ghaisas, who has made several documentary films about Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Narendra Pathak, a former president of the Maharashtra Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad; Pranjlal Saikia, an office bearer of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-linked organisation; and Rahul Solapurkar, who is intimately associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, as Voltaire had warned, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

On July 17, Prashant Pathrabe, the former director of the National Film Archive of India, was appointed as the new director of FTII. Matters truly came to a head after that. On August 3, as many as 30 students were asked to vacate their hostel rooms. The administration set a six-day deadline for students of the 2008 batch to finish their pending films. This, despite the protests of the faculty, and it being well known that the blame for the delay in the projects lay with the administration.

When their voices were not heard, a month later on August 17, nearly 50 students gheraoed the director and kept him confined in his office. The next day, acting on a complaint by Pathrabe alleging that the students had menaced and threatened him, the police arrived on campus around midnight with an arrest warrant for 15 students.

On September 10, three students went on an indefinite hunger strike, and as their health deteriorated, they were hospitalised one by one, the third one on September 14. From September 14, students from various educational establishments have been participating in token hunger strikes in solidarity with the agitating students of FTII. Students of the Jadavpur University, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Presidency University and Calcutta Medical College launched a six-hour hunger strike at the Jadavpur University campus.

Now that the cops have had their party, raiding and arresting students at midnight, and the students are on a fast unto death, while the government maintains a deathly silence, the story of the Cinémathèque Française might be worth retelling.

The Cinémathèque movement: “Are films more important than life?” asks Jean-Pierre Leaud (who plays the immature, spoiled and needy Alphonse) in Day for Night, François Truffaut’s loving tribute to filmmaking. For Truffaut the answer was in the affirmative.

“The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure...”  – François Truffaut inArt (1957)

The retelling is necessary, not least of all, as a tribute to the courageous students of FTII, who seem to have grasped the significance of cinema in the life of a liberal, civil society. Though it is debatable whether society understands its debt to cinema.

Gaston Roberge, often described as the “father of film studies in India”, has a wonderful description of this phenomenon in his classic book on film appreciation, Chitra Bani:

“Films are the collective dream of society. They provide society with mythologies or patterns of behaviour. Contemporary films do not necessarily convey the entire mythology of the present time. However...most people today respond in one way or another to the dream-like fantasies projected on the screen. For these fantasies relate to various areas of human life: war, politics, sex and violence, death, conscience, and the future of man.”

In the spring of 1968, all these fantasies came together on the streets of Paris. It began as a protest by film-makers, students, film lovers, and the public at large demanding the reinstatement of Henri Langlois as the director of the Cinémathèque Française, but the movement grew into a popular revolt involving all sections of society.

The Cinémathèque Française holds one of the largest archives of films, movie documents and film-related objects in the world. Langlois had acquired one of the largest collections in the world for it by the beginning of World War II, only to have it nearly wiped out by the German authorities in occupied France, who ordered the destruction of all films made prior to 1937. He and his friends smuggled large numbers of documents and films out to protect them until the end of the war.

“And he was, after his own fashion, an artist – a collector and curator with the temperament of a poet. Jean-Luc Godard, one of many French New Wave directors for whom Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française served as clubhouse and film school, declared that Langlois, who never shot a frame, was a great maker of movies. This was because, in Mr. Godard’s apt words, Langlois ‘produced a new way of seeing movies.’” – AO Scott in The New York Times

But Andre Malraux, who was then the Culture Minister, and an artistic icon in his own right, had his own way of seeing things. Along with the Gaullist cabinet, he wanted to convert this “film school” into a national institution, but failed to carry with him Langlois and his colleagues. Administration was not one of Malraux’s many talents. In a ham-handed manner, the organisation was taken over, and within 24 hours the locks were changed and Barbin installed as director.

“Within (the same) twenty-four hours, forty filmmakers, including Gance, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, and Robert Bresson, had withdrawn permission for their films to be shown at what was soon referred to as the Barbinothèque. They were quickly joined by dozens more, including Charlie Chaplin, Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang, Richard Lester, Carl Dreyer, Orson Welles, and Jerry Lewis. On Wednesday, a crowd of three thousand showed up at the Trocadéro, in front of the Palais de Chaillot. The demonstration was broken up by a police charge, leaving a number of people slightly wounded, including Truffaut, Godard, and Bernard Tavernier.” – Louis Menand in The New Yorker

As the protests spread across other institutions, universities and factories, there were violent clashes with the police, barricades across Paris, firebombs, and an all-pervasive belief that the day of revolution had arrived.

As international support grew for the Cinémathèque movement, there was a call for the boycott of the Cannes Film Festival that was to be held later:

“The Information and Action Assembly of the French Cinema, bringing together on May 17, 1968 more than a thousand professionals at the National School of Photography and Cinema on the rue Vaugirard, occupied by its students since May 15, asks that all directors, producers, distributors, actors, journalists and jury members at Cannes, in collaboration with their foreign colleagues and by the means proper to them, oppose the continuation of the Festival so as to show their solidarity with the striking workers and students, to protest against police repression, and to express their determination to contest Gaullist power and the current structures of the film industry.”

Barbin, of course refused to step down (which sounds familiar), but finally engineered his own downfall when he made the absurd demand that “a copy of every film distributed in France be donated to the Cinémathèque, at a cost of a million francs (about a thousand dollars today). Immediately, the head of the Motion Picture Export Association of America, Frederick Gronich, informed the French government that not only would no prints of American movies be deposited at the Cinémathèque until Langlois was reinstated but all prints already on deposit must be returned within twenty-four hours. Barbin was advised to back down”. With the intervention of influential persons who exercised financial clout with the Gaullist government, Henri Langlois was finally reinstated.

The world in darkness: In the Mahabharata, in order to bring his dead brothers back to life, Yudhisthira has to answer the Yaksha’s questions and must get all of them right.

Yaksha: What is the most amazing thing in the world?

Yudhisthira: The most amazing thing in the world is that even though every day one sees countless living entities dying, he still acts and thinks as if he will live forever.

These are words that should haunt our latter-day Yudhisthira. They will help him and his patrons remember and reflect on the impermanence of all phenomena. After all, Yudhisthira stands for duty and righteousness. He is also known as Dharmaraja, and he is the son of the god Dharma. Unfortunately, his rulers in Delhi prefer to emulate the blind king Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari. Dhritarashtra was born blind, but Gandhari bound her own eyes with a cloth, determined to see the world as her husband saw it, with darkness.

See also
The emperor's masks: 'apolitical' RSS calls the shots in Modi sarkar

NDA government's (1998) brazen attempt to 'revise' Gandhi's Collected Works
Here is the report of the first NDA government's (1998) brazen attempt to 'revise' Gandhi's Collected Works. Hundreds of whimsical deletions and changes were noticed by well-known scholars and Gandhians in India and around the world, who viewed them as an insult to scholarship, and demanded an end to such attempts to play with historical documents. Read the history of the controversy. Tridip Suhrud, now director of Sabarmati Ashram, wrote a detailed analysis of this shameless behaviour in EPW in November 2004. It was only after the defeat of the NDA government that the fraudulently 'revised' edition of the CWMG was withdrawn, in 2005. See more:
Modi says Congress committed 'sin' of partition // The Non-politics of the RSS

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