Sunanda Mehta: It has almost been a year since you assumed charge as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). But you have visited the institute only once. Meetings which traditionally took place at the institute are now being held in Mumbai.
My first visit caused great disturbance there because of which I felt that the meetings should be held elsewhere. If the students are uneasy, it’s better to avoid going there. It’s also the prerogative of the governing council to decide on the venue of the meeting. I have, however, spoken to the institute director and the next meeting may take place on the Pune campus. I have tried my best to have a dialogue with the student representatives, but they are not ready for talks.
Garima Mishra: When the protests were on, you had repeatedly said that you should be given a chance and that you would prove your mettle within a year. How far have you succeeded?
Regarding proving myself, you will see that we have lined up many things. In the past eight-nine months, we have accomplished a lot. Earlier, students who had joined in 2008 and 2009 were still pursuing their courses in 2016. There were many lacunae — inadequate faculty, administration and infrastructure. We tried to address some of the issues by recruiting new faculty members through walk-in interviews. Because of this, we could begin admissions for the new batch. The 2008 and 2009 batches has completed their courses and left the campus, projects have been lined up for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 batches, and the 2016 batch has already arrived on campus. Preparations for admission for the 2017 batch will begin in November. And, we have finally implemented the new syllabus, which was in the making for 10 years. We roped in eminent academics to revise the syllabi, and finalised it after five-six months of work. We have started the choice-based credit system and a semester system with the option of electives.
There is another new initiative — open days. Until now, the FTII was a mystery for residents of Pune, they were clueless about the developments on the campus. During the open days, over 10,000 people visit the institute. We will take this initiative to the next level by inviting students from colleges across the country.
Partha Sarathi Biswas: On the one hand you are opening the gates of the institute to common people, but on the other, you are restricting the entry of the media. Why does a reporter coming to the FTII need to have the institute director’s approval? This wasn’t the case in the past.
I need to clarify this. We haven’t stopped them from coming inside, but they need to inform us of their entry. There were some incidents which made us take this decision. The director has to know if a mediaperson is entering the campus; he should be in a position to allow or deny entry.
Garima Mishra: Those who opposed your appointment to the post of FTII chairman saw the move as an attempt to ‘saffronise’ the institute. Have you managed to break that perception?
I want to know what saffronisation has happened at FTII? It’s been eight-nine months… Did I bring in a dress code? Did I install a saffron flag inside the campus? There has been no saffronisation of educational institutes, it’s not going to happen.
Alaka Sahani: But your appointment was seen as a political decision.
There’s a difference between saffronisation and political appointments. In the past, whenever a government came, it appointed its own people. You check the appointments in the past. It’s the prerogative of the government. If I was appointed, the I&B Ministry must have thought it through, it was not an overnight decision. I was interviewed for six months before they finally zeroed in on me. After that, I was interviewed three times in Delhi. I didn’t apply for the post, they asked me if I wanted to go to FTII as chairman. I agreed and I got an appointment letter on June 9, 2015. I am not paid, it’s an honourary post. All I get is travel and accommodation expenses when I go for official meetings.
Sandeep Ashar: The controversy arose because for the first time the merit of the appointed chairman was being questioned.
Shall I tell you one thing? Protests are good for a democracy. Agar protest mein dum hota to wo successful hota (If the protest had substance, it would have been successful). As far as credentials go, I have run the Cine and TV Artists’ Association (CINTAA) for 21 years. Not one person from the industry came and told me that I’m incapable of leading the association. CINTAA is a very big organisation, it has 8,500 members.
Alaka Sahani: But CINTAA and FTII are very different organisations.
CINTAA runs the entire film industry. It comes with great administrative responsibility, just like the FTII chairman. Only the CINTAA head is not supposed to take lectures. But if I am called to do that, I can certainly do it very well too. I am a trained actor. When I wanted to pursue a course in acting, the FTII didn’t have one. So I joined a private academy run by Roshan Taneja sahib, former head of department of the FTII’s acting department. I see cinema from an actor’s point of view. As far as administration goes, I have tremendous experience. I have also done hospital administration before that. Although hospital administration is different, administration is administration. Rules are the same.
I have also done a paramedical course from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). I was among the first few to be trained in CT scan technology, which was very new then.
Atikh Rashid: Your administration proposed a hike which would have increased the fee of the acting course by 600%. Even other courses would witness a 140 to 300% hike. Do you think students can afford such high fees?
The hike proposal was nowhere near 600%—it was hyped by the media. The fees had not been increased since 2010, the then chairman had in fact reduced it from R2 lakh to
R34,000. People are bothered by fee hikes. Why weren’t they bothered when the fee was reduced? Hence we calculated and came to those numbers. It is, however, the governing council that takes the final decision. The issue was debated in the council and finally, just a 20% hike was put into effect.
Atikh Rashid: Do you think it’s right to even propose such a steep hike?
Do you know how many seats are there for the acting course? Twelve. Of which six are reserved. So there are only six seats left for the open category. Six students will definitely be able to afford it. And if they are not able to afford the fee, we can find ways to fund his or her education if they are promising candidates.
Dipti Nagpaul-D’souza: In such a situation, how will FTII be any different from private film schools?
You need money to run the institute. Where will the money come from? Why does Subhash Ghai charge R20 lakh? The government spends R45 crore every year on FTII. We are now starting short-term courses to make the institute selfsustaining.
Atikh Rashid: Proposals such as these invite criticism from sections that have been opposing your appointment. They say this is what they were afraid of — privatisation through the back door.
See, students have their point of view and the administration has its own. At the end of the day, the administration has to run the institute. They have to look after the accounts too, students are not going to do that. The decision to propose the fee hike was taken by the administrative body since it had not been done for many years. We accepted the hike that was ratified by the academic council.
Partha Sarathi Biswas: The Principal Director of Audit (Central) has pointed out many irregularities in the FTII’s functioning, including indiscipline. Do you think the students were given a free hand at the institute?
I can’t comment on this. You have to ask this question to administrators who were present when these things happened. Since I have come, I have tried to straighten things. Besides, I have always supported the students. For example, I can tell you that in the governing council meeting, someone had proposed that students shouldn’t be allowed to leave the campus between 11 pm and 5 am. I was the only one to oppose it. I said, ‘You are curbing freedom. If something untoward happens, law and order authorities are there to take care of it’.
Dipti Nagpaul-D’souza: During the agitation, the character of students was also questioned. What is your view?
I haven’t spoken a word against students till now. Creative students actually don’t behave like this. I can tell you now that there was a political force behind this (the student agitation). Rahul Gandhi had come there (the FTII campus), so had (Arvind) Kejriwal’s people. Yogendra Yadav visited, as did NCP leaders. Where are these people today? It’s been a year-and-a-half since the entire episode and not one among them has asked about what’s happening there. But Gajendra Chauhan is still here, fighting it out. This shows that there was a selfish motive behind all this. They weren’t targeting Gajendra Chauhan, they were actually targeting the Modi government. Because they were not getting issues to criticise the government for.
Sunanda Mehta: In the light of the students’ agitation and the fierce opposition to your appointment, most would have chosen to step down voluntarily. Did you ever consider the option?
If a soldier is sent to the border and he runs away from the battlefield, he will be called a traitor. The government gave me a responsibility and I, being a responsible person, had to fulfill it. I’m a strong person.
Sandeep Ashar: Do you think that since the controversy, you have been branded in a certain way? Does it affect you as an actor?
I have been an actor for the past 35 years. I want to ask people, ‘Have you seen just one film of mine—Khuli Khidki (1989)? Haven’t you seen my other big films Andaaz (2003), Barsaat (2005)?’ I’m the only actor to play Syama Prasad Mookerjee in a film. Khuli Khidki was made in 1989, it’s 2016 today. I have done a lot of work during this period. Why can’t they talk about that?
Sunanda Mehta: What are your views on the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil controversy?
The question is not about the film, it should get a good release. The question is about Pakistani actors working in India. As president of CINTAA, in 2014, I had raised this issue. At the time, Pakistani artistes would come here on a work permit for cultural activities. I wanted them to mandatorily register with the organisation (CINTAA). The CINTAA vigilance committee had also caught these people by visiting film shoots. Many of them (Pakistani artistes) would be overstaying in those days. The case that comes to my mind is that of Ali Zafar. I had procured all his papers, which showed that he had to leave India on November 14, 2014, and we followed up and made him leave. He left because of us and then returned to finish the shoot with a new permit. Sadly, this issue did not gather much steam at the time. Today, due to this film (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) and the tension on the border, it has become such a big issue. But I was the first to raise the point.
Atikh Rashid: Are you seeking a temporary ban or do you want a permanent one?
My stance is a permanent ban. Why do you need them here? We have about 10,000 actors enrolled here who are struggling for work. Why should we invite Pakistani actors here instead of offering our own employment? There are many reasons a producer chooses a Pakistani actor. One important reason is that he may get an additional territory for marketing. It’s more of an economic choice than a creative one.
Shaji Vikraman: When you talk of Bollywood as a global film industry, why are you restricting this inflow of actors from other countries?
I’m only opposed to actors coming from Pakistan and not from any other country. That is how people of the country feel at the moment. It would be plain wrong if we entertain Pakistani actors in this tense situation. A person is coming and beating you up and you are saying let’s go to his house and have food. How is this possible?
Sunanda Mehta: Let’s talk about your films. Has the FTII controversy helped your film career?
No, I don’t have too many films with me. I enjoy the best of cinema at my level. After Mahabharat, I did hundreds of serials, big and small. I worked on 1946 (a Bengali film) which is stuck with the Censor Board. The case is in the high court now so I won’t comment further. I’m also doing another Bengali film and a Hindi film, Kisan ki Beti, which deals with issues faced by farmers and their daughters. I’m playing the main character in the film. I have survived in the industry without any godfather. I am aware that I won’t be cast in big films. So I do big roles in small films. I also do big shows on TV. I do cultural shows because of my image as Yudhishthira (the character he played in the Mahabharat serial). I also do programmes for my party, the BJP. I became a member of the party on February 17, 2004, along with (Navjot) Sidhu. He has left, I’m still here.
GARIMA MISHRA: Now when you look back at your career, do you regret doing films such as Khuli Khidki?
No. Do you know Khuli Khidki had Amjad Khan, who worked in Sholay? Aruna Irani, Satyan Kumar, Tiku Talsania were there too. There were many big names… Khuli Khidki was a remake of the English film Bedroom Eyes. And whatever you might say, it was passed by the Censors. It was a silver jubilee hit. It contains no vulgarity. There’s only one scene which is between a husband and a wife. Where will a husband and wife get intimate, if not in the bedroom? It’s a neat and clean film.
Sunanda Mehta: You mentioned the new syllabus at FTII, but students have complained about not being provided the entire syllabus.
We are giving them the syllabus semester wise. They are now studying in the first semester, how can we give them the syllabus for the sixth semester?
Sunanda Mehta: But it’s being denied even under the RTI as though it’s a secret document.
Why would we give it to anyone? It’s the institute’s property. But I will note down your suggestion.
Sunanda Mehta: Decisions such as these, of not revealing the syllabus, might once again feed allegations that there are efforts to saffronise the course. Those who have been opposing your appointment may put two and two together.
I assure you that there will be no saffronisation at FTII. I said this on day one and I’m repeating it now. What’s saffronisation? How do you define it? The entire Parliament is saffron now: 282 (BJP MPs) are sitting there. The country has supported saffronisation. But I would still say that there will be no saffronisation. It’s a cooked-up thing. Some time ago, asahishnuta (intolerance) had come up. I had never heard of this word. Same with award wapsi. Now there’s so much tension on the border but nobody is returning awards. Nobody is saying there is intolerance.
Sunanda Mehta: FTII, JNU and recently Ashoka University — we suddenly hear a lot of instances of authorities clamping down on students. Why is it so?
Students are like kacchi mitti (clay). It’s easy to manipulate them. Whenever they want to target the Modi government, they are using the students to do that. You see the students who talk the most come from political backgrounds. I told you in the beginning that if the students’ agenda was right, it would have succeeded. I have video recording of students abusing Prime Minister Modi, then I&B minister Arun Jaitley and Gajendra Chauhan. Who is responsible for this? Is this freedom of speech?
Partha Sarathi Biswas: If you don’t go to Pune, how will you break the ice and work with students?
Although I don’t go there physically, I’m there everyday over phone. And very soon, we will hold a meeting in Pune. I am ready to meet the students tomorrow. They don’t want to meet me.