From NBT To FTII: Is The BJP Indulging In Political Favouritism?

A few days back, the internet was flooded with news of the apparent unfairness of Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as the new chief of the esteemed Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. It took me a moment to piece the face in pictures with that of the mustache-sporting, crown-wearing Yudhisthir who spoke spasht Hindi and had me hooked to the TV every Sunday morning. I spent around 10 fruitless minutes trying to recollect what else he has in his kitty to justify the entrustment of such a big responsibility before I came across an article that explained his political affiliations and – lo behold! I wasn’t in the dark anymore.

Picture Credit: FTII Wisdom Tree
Picture Credit: FTII Wisdom Tree

Interestingly, the phenomenon of political favoritism when it comes to official appointments is not a new one. It is common practice for political parties to pull out the wrong color grass and replace it with the right one – it has been done before and it will be done again. However, nepotism in the field of education is exceptionally lethal and should be done away at any cost.

Educational institutions have, and will continue to be, the breeding grounds for the future citizens of our country. It is here that ideas arise, ideologies are discussed, and studied and impressions formed. Hence, it is of utmost importance that these arenas of knowledge not be limited by any kind of political or religious agenda or arm-twisting. However, this is exactly what the current Government is doing.

First, Baldev Sharma, former editor of RSS mouthpiece ‘Panchjanya‘, was appointed as chairman of the National Book Trust. Then, Vishram Ramchandra Jamdar, a professed RSS swayamsevak, was appointed as the head of Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur (although he was not among the four shortlisted candidates for the post), not to forget the much publicized resignation of Dr. Amartya Sen from the helm of Nalanda University, which was followed by the repainting of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) with a cluster of saffron supporters. And now this. Read it all together and you’ll realise that the paranoia and suspicion that greeted the news of Chauhan’s appointment was not uncalled for.

FTII, which had been home to the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, and Raj Kumar Hirani, to name a few, has long been a space that treats cinema as an art. This is hugely relevant in today’s times than we imagine, because it still adheres to viewing cinema in its hugely multifarious role for social comment, socio-political reflection, and as an important cultural tool that makes sense of the society we live in. Considering the importance of free speech in the constructive criticism of society, the government and the culture in general, it is of utmost importance that the spaces that facilitate the same not be under the shadow of any particular political entity. This is particularly valid in the current scenario where the opposition party (or what is left of it) is as effective as a pen without a nib.

Last that I heard, the FTII students at Pune have launched an indefinite strike against this blatantly political appointment. Taking into consideration the reports that Chauhan was picked ahead of lyricist Gulzar and filmmakers Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who were apparently shortlisted by the ministry for the top job, this is not surprising. Meanwhile, Chauhan maintains that he doesn’t understand the reasoning behind these ‘blind protests’ and that he is planning to meet the students in person and try and address their concerns.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to mention that the reign of the BJP government has been peppered with controversies of favoritism and U-turns from Day 1, which is amusing since it is for the same that they had pointed fingers, with much gusto, at the earlier government. Needless to say, this is not going to be the last of the many controversies that the ruling party is so very fond of unleashing. In the meantime, as the headline of a leading daily goes, appointment of ‘Yudhishtir‘ has triggered an FTII ‘Mahabharat’”.

(This article was first published in Youth Ki Awaaz)

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Goodbye Gujarat

“Why does one person need so many cloths?? How many t-shirts and salwar could one person wear in a span of 3months?? What in the world was I thinking when I bought all this stuff?? How the hell was I going to get all this stuff across 5 states?!”

These were just a few questions that were going through my mind as I sat in front of a suitcase that was looking increasingly puny in comparison with all the stuff that is supposed to go inside it. So I decided to do what many a genius has done time and again when faced with such daunting tasks. I decided to procrastinate.

See the thing is, I am moving out from Gandhinagar in less than a week. Wow… hurts quite a bit to think about it! In a little over than 3 months, this place has become as much a home as is possible. So many memories…walking down the memory lane, I am jotting down some of the most vivid memories I have of this place.

  1. Wandering through Manek Chowk

Manek Chowk is a street food bazaar which opens at around 10.00pm every night. Known for the mouth-watering variety of food it offers, it is the perfect place to have the BEST dosa you’ve ever had (I’m a South Indian. So when I say The Best, I mean it), lip-smacking pav bhajis, kulfi with raita, faludas, hot jalebis, and reasonably good pani puris among other delicacies. Key in the 1980s Bollywood music streaming in from speakers to experience life in North India at its best.

Street Food at Manek Chowk (Photo Courtesy: www.ahmedabadgiftshop.com)
Street Food at Manek Chowk (Photo Courtesy: http://www.ahmedabadgiftshop.com)
  1. The day of hailstorm

This is truly an unforgettable experience. A few friends and I had set out to visit the Adalaj Stepwell as few kilometers away from Infocity. It was a very hot and cloudy day and we were expecting (or rather hoping) for a strong drizzle at most. Imagine our surprise when the sun who had been playing peek-a-boo barely a second ago, suddenly disappeared and wind strong enough to overturn roadside carts and uproot age-old trees appeared. Initially we waited a while, hoping it would abate as abruptly as it started. And then it started to rain with such ferocity that we wondered if this was a replay of the 2001 earthquake. Somehow we managed to find an autorickshaw. It took us a moment to realise that half the ferocity of the rain was because it wasn’t raindrops that was drenching us – it was sharp, pebble-sized pieces of ice! My first hailstorm! And then, as if it were a Bollywood movie, the rickshaw broke down. How we got back to the hostel with our wits intact still eludes me but once we did, it made a hell of a story!

Caught in the hailstorm (Picture Courtesy: www.skymetweather.com)
Caught in the hailstorm (Picture Courtesy: http://www.skymetweather.com)
  1. Strolling through Sabarmati Riverfront. At 12.30 am.

Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project is an initiative by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to develop the Sabarmati riverfront in the city of Ahmedabad, India. . We reached there at around 12.30 am, only to be sent back as it closes at 11.00pm. Neverthless, the short walks outside the entrance were enticing enough to make me want to come back to this place as and when I can.

Sabarmati Riverfront at night. (Photo Courtesy: defence.pk)
Sabarmati Riverfront at night. (Photo Courtesy: defence.pk)

It was also the place where I got the first glimpse of how dangerous the seemingly safe places of North can be. The fact is, in the Southern parts of India, people rarely venture out after dark, with the exception of metro cities. We don’t have night bazaars or street shopping. However in the other parts of India, night is the time everything comes alive. There is something about seeing multitudes streaming through streets going through their lives that make you put your guard down. It makes your forget all that you’ve read about how unsafe a place it is for girls. Which you should never, EVER forget.

  1. Sunset at Somnath

Somnath is an ancient temple located in the Western coast of Gujarat. We were on a trip to Diu and stopped there and ended up visiting the temple at the best moment possible. The evening aarthi was just starting and the ambiance inside was amazing. But the best part of Somnath was standing on the deck there and watching the sunset across one of the most beautiful expanse of sea I’ve ever seen. Experiencing that sense of peace and tranquillity – very difficult to put into words.

Somnath temple at sunset. (Picure Courtesy: Shobha Kamath)
Somnath temple at sunset. (Picure Courtesy: Shobha Kamath)
  1. The day Modi won

How can that day not be memorable? Hearing about Gujarat rejoicing over Modi’s win is one thing – seeing it person, feeling that joy and sense of triumph vibrating through passers by…unforgettable. Needless to say, by the night of 16th May, there was not a single sweet shop not empty and there were policemen stationed every 100 metres. (Erm…I just realised that those two facts have nothing in common!) Brushing aside my personal emotions, it was amazing seeing so much faith in one man’s vision.

Celebratory ladoos on the streets after Modi won (Photo Courtesy: indianexpress.com)
Celebratory ladoos on the streets after Modi won (Photo Courtesy: indianexpress.com)

The Art Of Spotting A Slight Where None Was Intended

Yesterday, I was witness to a rather fascinating conversation among the three sixteen-ish girls who were standing next to me in the bus. Now, I’m not sure what sparked their discussion but from what I could infer, they were diehard fans of Alia Bhatt and were discussing about the controversy set off by the ‘Radha’ song. But before I could gather what the controversy was, a rather..erm…well-built aunty with an equally well-built handbag got in between us, thus ending my rather harmless eavesdropping session.

And since I had nothing better to do (Now you get an idea about the degree of my joblessness!), I came home and summoned the Google Devi, vowing to get to the bottom of this. And I did. What I read made me want to bang my head on the wall, on my desk, anywhere, but then I’d hurt my head and probably have an aneurysm. (Yes, I know that I watch way too much Grey’s Anatomy) So I thought I’d share it with you all and make you want to bang your heads on the wall. You know what they say – safety in numbers and all.

So here goes a list of some of the ‘controversies’ triggered by the songs in the recent times. Oh btw, my dear reader, you are forewarned. What follows is my rant rather than a decent blog post.

Let’s start with the song that started this rant. According to Hindu Janjagriti Samiti (HJS), in the song Radha (Student of the Year), lyricist Anvita Dutta used the word ‘sexy’ to describe Radha, thus making a derogatory reference to the mythological character Radha of Hindu religion. That doesn’t really astonish me because I had been expecting this ever since the very first time I heard this song. But what had me doubling up with laughter is Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s take on this – Apparently, while addressing a function of RSS, she mentioned that there are references to Radha (in the film) not knowing how to dance and being invited to the dance floor to learn dancing and that such references are attacks on Hindu beliefs. Incidently, Sushma Swaraj also had a problem with the movie Oh My God because the lead role (portrayed by Paresh Rawal) is shown to be an atheist. Erm…melodramatic much?

The music maestro A.R Rahman too has been subjected to his share of meaningless controversies. Hosanna, a chartbuster from Gautham Menon’s Ek Deewana Tha (yes, the lukewarm Hindi version of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya) has been objected to by the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum, which has said, “It has hurt not only Christian, but also Jewish sentiments.” CSF general secretary Joseph Dias was quoted as saying, “We aren’t going into the lyrics or vulgar picturisation of the song which are also objectionable. But we’d like to point out that Hosanna is a prayer in the Bible and sacred to both Jews and Christians.” Excuse me, but are we talking about the same song here?? What vulgar picturisation?? Have I been sold a bogus CD? Fraud! I know my rights! Consumer court – I want a refund!

And then there is Marjaanifrom Billu. Or was it Billi? Whatever! The movie had already been dragged into courts as some barber associations objected to use of the word “barber” in the title (It was initially titled Billu Barber). What is so objectionable about calling a barber a barber is beyond me! Anyway, I’ve heard and seen this particular song many a time and try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. So I searched and searched and finally found that the lyrics in limelight are ‘Rab ki hazoor mein kasme jo khayee.” I really don’t know what is so terrible in these lines to offend a section of the Muslim audience (I found a lot of explanation about how the word hazoor has been used to describe presence rather than the Prophet, but I don’t know enough to comment on that. Plus, my Hindi is rather basic), but offended they were!

If you can’t slam a movie for hurting “religious sentiment”, then the next shot is racism. The title song of Madhur Dixit’s Aaja Nachle irked certain communities in Uttar Pradesh so much so that Ms.Mayawati called for a nationwide ban on the movie. Allegedly, the title song humiliated Dalits. Now, of course, I couldn’t rest without knowing what the lyrics were precisely. The lyrics which was responsible for all this hungama is the seemingly harmless line hidden somewhere in the title song which goes like ‘bole mochi bhi khud ko sonaar hai’ which roughly translates to ‘the cobbler tried to pass off as a goldsmith’. Assuming that you are as confused as I am, let me try to explain to you how calling cobbler ‘mochi’ turned out to be so derogatory. See, the cobbler or shoemaker often makes things made of leather. Leather is made from hide. Hide comes from cows. Person who profits by death of cow is traditionally… not popular, shall we say? To add things up, we have here a person who makes an important product from an unpopular resource and further, in the context of the song, tries to pass himself off as a goldsmith in order to score a date. Whew! A glass of water, someone?

So there you have it. This is why they collect taxes every year (and in numerous names). There may be numerous powercuts all day long, roads may not be tarred, women maybe raped every 10 minutes…but the government will somehow find the time to watch a Madhuri Dixit film first day, first show and raise a voice in protest if it feels Mrs.Dixit has cast a shadow on your honor. Impressive!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a million references in a million different songs that have affronted numerous sections of the society for reasons which seem exceedingly trivial. It feels like a trend nowadays to judge a movie even before it is released, as was the case with Vishwaroopam, and portray it in a negative light as opposed to allowing the audience to watch the movie and judge for themselves. Is our faith and self-respect so fragile that it can be dented or shattered by something that whizzes through the cinema screen for an hour or two? We speak about unity in diversity and open-mindedness and yet when push comes to shove, it is my-group vs. your-group!

I particularly have a problem with the controversies sparked off by alleged ‘disrespect to religious beliefs’. I, for one, believe that our faith is wholly personal matter, which no one can tarnish unless you let them. It is common consensus that there is but one God (if you believe in Him, that is!) who, incidently, is probably ROFL-ing at all the rubbish that is being done for his benefit! And please don’t get me started on the intolerance towards atheism. But, more of my verbal diarrhea on religion and society later. (A word of advice – if you are around when I start pontifying about religion and society, run.)

Honestly, how the use of a word in a song reflects the thoughts of a society, I fail to understand! Remember the Rang De Basantidebacle where the government was ‘concerned’ as the movie seems to send out the wrong message to the youngsters as it shows the shooting of the corrupt minister? Also, do you remember how one group of demonstrators, taking cue from the scene in which the protagonists hold a silent, candlelight vigil at New Delhi’s India Gate, carried out a similar rally to voice their protest over the acquittal of the main accused of the Jessica Lal murder case? How much more proof do you need to realize that the Indian society has enough sense to discern the good from bad on its own without every other word being censored?

What good can ever come of all this mollycoddling??

IN THE NAME OF MALALA

I have often wondered when my fascination with the Middle Eastern community started. And I’m not sure how it started either. It is something that I have thought of in length, over time, in vain. I remember reading The Kite Runner when I was around 14 and being so moved by that book I was that I rushed home and googled Afganisthan (which, until then, was a country I had given little thought to, except maybe as a land of gorgeous men and women), trying to make sense of its chaotic political scenario. One thing led to another and next thing I know, I was delving into the ideology of the Taliban, struggling to comprehend how they justify the murder of tens of thousands of people in the name of God (not to mentions the numerous terror attacks ). For a 14-year-old, this was pretty heavy stuff. I recall reading the Declaration of War issued by the Taliban elucidating the reason behind 9/11 and thinking, the naive kid I was, why all this fuss when you could just solve this like adults. Surely, the people educated enough to actually produce the 3-4 pages of such a complicated document, with its absurd terms and exaggerated (or so I thought) threats would be sensible enough to respond to reason? 
And I remember musing to myself, very smugly “What if they refuse to respond to your threats in ways you dictate? What if the women (to whom most of their “reforms” were directed) of your country wake up one day and realise what utter bullshit you have been feeding them in the name of a sacred religion and decide to take a stand against you? What are you gonna do, just shoot each and every one of them? 
 Little did I imagine that this rhetorical question would actually be answered in booming affirmative. Yes, that is exactly what we plan to do. And they did too – with Malala. Malala Yousafzai. 
The 14-year-old school kid who was shot in her head for speaking up against the educational confines imposed by the Taliban on the girls schools in the Swat Valley. Reading through her dairy for BBC, I was struck by how innocently (but persistently) she sticks to her issue. She was 12 years then. Her persistency paid off, and the school reopened amidst continuous shelling and skirmishes between the Taliban and military. At the same time, Malala managed to catch the attention of the world with a documentary on life at Swat in the middle of its political unrest and her pledge to become a politician to save her country from its “so many crises”. This was followed by numerous accolades lauding her dedication and initiative. With more and more school kids being tuned into her mission, a good percentage of which was the previously-oppressed-school-girls, the Taliban could no longer refrain from acting. And they did. Two shots – once in the head and once in the neck. And that would have been that. 
Except that the reaction that this inhuman act triggered, not just in Pakistan, but around the world was of humongous proportion compared to the norms. Taliban, for once, could not hog the limelight as it usually does. Even in her close-to-death condition, Malala’s loyalty to her cause is highlighted rather than Taliban’s brutal attempt at silencing its non-abiders. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that the entire world is on its knees, praying for her to pull through this. Alive and kicking.
Of course, the shooting is just the tip of the iceberg. This is not the first time this has happened. Malala is not the first person to feel the heat of standing up against the TTP. And the blame cannot be comfortably confined to one shoulder. The interference of America and their continuous aerial attack (reportedly always targeted at Taliban fighters) have left a number of national people maimed, dead and scarred for life, a large chunk of which are innocent children who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’m yet to see any of those kids being catapulted to limelight or the world renouncing their silent support to America or at least issuing a statement “condemning such heinous acts”. Of course, it can be argued that America is fighting for a bigger cause and there is bound to be some “collateral damage” or even better, you can always save the day by bringing up the 9/11 & the slaughter of the sons & daughters of America. To go on about one of the most debated (and criticised) of world events is not my intention and nor do I pretend to be proficient enough to go into it. All I’m trying to drive in is that regardless of the issues haunting Pakistan and the Swat, regardless of the brutal crimes that Pakistan has been witness to in the past, let us not let the attention shift from Malala. Let us not let the crooked intelligent TTP manage to shift focus from the matter at hand and walk away with yet another opportunity which might mark the first of the many baby steps for the liberation of Pakistan. (Again, that might be my naivety speaking up.) 
Either ways, it is amazing to watch the press and people of Pakistan (again I emphasize on the female population) being atypically outspoken in their condemnation of Taliban. Pakistan, they seem to say, is weary of all the atrocities you have inflicted upon us. We are tired of you manipulating our youth in the name of God and twisting the words of Holy Quran. We are tired of being accused of being a terrorist-haven, of being the synonym of violence and terrorism. And so time is ripe for us to deal with the mess that you have dished out to us and our children. And deal, we will. 
Meanwhile, I can’t help feeling humbled by that teenage girl, who is looking forward to a good many years of physiotherapy and treatments not to mention the danger of being “marked” by the Taliban for the rest of her life, on whose honour UN declared November 10th as ‘Malala Day’. 
Way to go girl!