Monday, November 30, 2015
Ashutosh Vandana - A voice, under 35: Right place, wrong T-shirt
I was detained at the film festival in Goa for wearing an FTII T-shirt
Come November and the cinephile in me gets ready to return to Goa. Each year, I come to this beautiful state because I love being by the sea, feeling the cool breeze in my hair, eating the local food, the warm smiles and easy conversation of Goans — but, most importantly, I return because I want to immerse myself in the world of the films playing at the International Film Festival of India (Iffi). I have been visiting the festival for the past five years and can say with some authority that it is the most exhaustive and exciting film festival in the country. One gets to see big releases and also small, obscure films; old classics as well as experimental works. One gets to meet movie lovers and develop new friendships, forged over the ties of cinema.
This year, however, things have been different. I have been denied the chance to be a part of this cinematic carnival — only because I am a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). I am from Delhi and the cinema bug got me early in life. In 2011, I joined the FTII as a student of cinematography and have since availed of the institute-sponsored trip to Iffi every year. This year, we were told that the institute was sponsoring only “first-timers”, so I decided to go on my own. On the morning of November 21, at 8.30 am, I was standing in line to inaugurate my rigorous viewing schedule at the festival — I was planning to watch five films a day, from 9 am to 11 pm, over the next 10 days. Suddenly, I heard a police inspector briefing a group of security guards mention “the Film and Television Institute of India”.
Being an FTII student, I was curious and approached the huddle. The inspector noticed me and stopped to ask if something had happened. I told him that I was a student of the FTII and since I had heard him mention the institute’s name, I was wondering what was happening. He asked me, “Why are you here, at Iffi?” and I told him that I was on a study tour — attending Iffi is part of our curriculum — signalling to my T-shirt bearing the institute’s name.
Suddenly, a huge commotion broke out and before I knew it, I was being dragged away by the guards. My person violated and my film-watching plans dashed, I was hurriedly rushed out of the premises and taken to a police cell. Once there, they began “checking” me as if I were a criminal — I was frisked, my phone and wallet were pored over without my permission, and I was asked all sorts of questions about who I was, where I came from, what I was doing at the festival, and what my “intentions” were. I was taken to be a “dangerous protester”, a subversive who intended to disrupt the festival. Simply because I was wearing an FTII T-shirt.
The previous evening, two ex-students of the institute had staged a protest at the film festival’s inauguration ceremony held at the Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee indoor stadium, Taleigao. Just as the ceremony was about to conclude, they stood up holding placards and shouted slogans against the politically motivated appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairperson. Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley, who was up on stage, was caught unawares, as was the rest of the auditorium. Chief guest Anil Kapoor, who was busy entertaining the audience with a “dance number”, seemed so shocked that he remained frozen mid-move. The audience was confronted with a resounding “What about the FTII?”, shifting focus to the ongoing struggle at the institute against the I&B ministry’s meddlesome attitude and anti-student policies of the last few months.
As expected, the protesting duo were physically assaulted, hauled to the nearest police station and slapped with supernumerary charges — conspiracy, trespass, impersonation and assault on a police officer — because they had “embarrassed” the government at this prestigious international platform. The extreme security measures I was subject to had been put in place to avoid more such “untoward incidents”. Given the huge contingent of media present, the I&B ministry, under which both the FTII and Iffi fall, did not want its dirty linen aired in public.
During their 139-day-long protest that began in June this year, students of the FTII tried everything to convince the ministry to overturn its decision on appointing Chauhan as chairperson of the FTII board. The government did not budge, and Chauhan stays on as chairperson. As a student of the institute, I would like to now ask him, Mr Chairman, where were you when FTII students were being assaulted by Goa Police? Where are you, now that false and brazen charges have been slapped on us? Where were you when I was being dragged away by a group of guards simply because I was wearing an FTII T-shirt? My phone was taken away from me and its contents — personal messages, images, mails, private recordings — were browsed by all the police personnel at the station. The station head officer used grossly inappropriate language while “interrogating” me. Mr Chairman, this was your moment to build bridges. Is this how you expect students from your institute to be treated?
At Iffi, I have been declared persona non grata. My authorised delegate pass has been cancelled permanently because I am a “potential threat” to the festival and to India’s image. What’s more, an entire section of the festival that was dedicated to screening FTII student films every year has been scrapped this time, because the government fears that students will screen “anti-national” and “subversive” films. In response, the students have started a parallel film festival, which is energised by the support of audiences eager to catch the “other” show. Hon’ble Minister and Mr Chairman, you can throw us out, you can put us behind bars, you can even chain our hands, but you cannot choke our voices. Cinema is our birthright and we shall have it!
The writer, 30, is a final year cinematography student at the FTII, Pune