“Right-wing resentment was always seething below the surface”: An Interview with Dhritiman Chaterji

Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
12 August, 2015

On 10 June 2015, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry appointed actor-turned-politician Gajendra Singh Chauhan as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Known primarily for his role as Yudhishthira in the hugely popular Mahabharata TV series that aired on Doordarshan, Chauhan’s appointment was met with resistance from the students of the institute. The students have questioned Chauhan’s “creative credentials” and appear to believe that his affinity to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had led to his selection. This dispute manifested itself into an ongoing strike that has been underway since 12 June. During the latter half of July, Delhi-based senior journalist Monobina Gupta spoke to veteran actor Dhritiman Chaterji over email.Chaterji began his acting career with Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi. Released in the turbulent Calcutta of 1972, the film and its leading actor became an inherent part of the cinematic consciousness of Bengal. Although he went on to act in several other films, Chaterji also ventured into the world of advertising and worked with Hindustan Thompson Associates—an advertising agency based in Mumbai that later changed its name to JWT India—even as he picked up roles that interested him. He spoke to Gupta about the changing culture of the FTII, the future of Indian cinema and the politicisation of Indian institutions.

Monobina Gupta: The FTII is currently in the midst of a huge controversy over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairperson. How do you interpret the unfolding crisis and what it might mean for the future of training film students in the country? 

Dhritiman Chaterji: Well, it’s been about a month and a half now and neither side seems to be willing to back down; so it could be a question of who blinks first. I don’t think the ministry or the government would be in the slightest bit bothered if the FTII shut down, either temporarily or permanently. It is difficult to believe that anyone in the government seriously thought that Chauhan was an appropriate choice, either professionally or ideologically. It was a deliberate provocation designed to provoke exactly the kind of reaction that it has — “Yes we’re insulting you. Swallow it quietly or else…”

Ideological confrontations were expected when the new government took over and why not? The battles for one’s beliefs have to be fought constantly. So the appointment of someone ideologically acceptable to the government with at least a pretence of professional distinction would have been difficult to argue against. But digging deep to find a party member with the most contemptible filmography is a calculated slap in the face that says “This is what we think your institute is worth”.

Concerns that centre around issues such as the institute’s financial health, the level of subsidies and the low recovery through hostel fees could be legitimate. But these are issues that arise in any large institution and have to be thought through. Here, the problem is more fundamental than that. It’s the vision of the FTII as a centre of learning pitted against the FTII as a vocational school for turning out industry professionals. The former vision doesn’t preclude the latter but the latter certainly has no need for the former. So these two visions are going to be very difficult to reconcile.

MG: This is not the first instance of academic or cultural institutions being politicised. Still, the current processes of curtailing autonomy appear to be far more dangerous than those we have witnessed in the past. Would you agree that dissident scholarship and creativity are facing considerable threat under the present dispensation? 

DC: The thing is that all of us have a very narrow definition of politics and politicisation. If you start from the premise that vote politics, in other words our sacred parliamentary system, is the be all and end all of democracy, then politics becomes just a matter of this party against another one. Politicians propagate that view because it is of immense advantage to them, the media parrots it because it makes for nice, juicy copy and nice TV mock battles and we, the voters, buy it because it’s much more convenient for us that way—vote once every few years, watch the circus from the side-lines and bitch about everything without accepting responsibility about anything. Representative democracy, so called, soothes our collective conscience. Participative democracy, deliberative democracy—a term coined, I think, by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze — what’s that?

But if you think of politics as being inherent to everything that you do or do not do, to everything that you think or do not think, then politicisation is inevitable, even welcome. The most vital institutions are not those that are sanitised but those in which opposing ideas do battle. So to think of public institutions as ivory towers of impartial learning untainted by politics is foolish.

This wasn’t such a problem 20, 30 or even 40 years ago when there was a loose consensus about the legitimacy of socialist and left liberal ideology and that was the dominant discourse. But, right-wing resentment was always seething below the surface. Now it has surfaced, in a particularly aggressive, even virulent, form. I’m actually surprised that people are so taken aback at this. Wasn’t this just waiting to happen?

The clash of cultures, if you want, is compounded by the fact that the right is such a confused lot today. Religious majoritarianism, social conservatism, economic neo-liberalism — it’s a heady mix of elements to try and control. This, and the dearth of cogent right-wing voices, is leading to a deep-seated insecurity which is manifesting itself in a mad rush for control, control at any cost. The result is the changes in institutions such as the ICHR [Indian Council of Historical Research] and the FTII.

MG: Since you began your career in advertising, it’s probably fair to say you’ve been as much a part of that industry as of cinema. How would you describe the changes that have characterised the two industries? Has the gulf between cinema and advertising considerably narrowed over the years? And where is art cinema positioned in the present context?

DC: It would be absolutely fair to say that I was as much a part of advertising as of cinema, perhaps even more so. I was quite certain, right from the beginning, that I’d only take on acting projects that I really wanted to and that I’d be very unhappy in the mainstream cinema of that time [the 1970s]. So an alternative career was a way of earning an income. It was fun and I was pretty successful at it. But it can be pretty soul-deadening to work really hard—and advertising is very hard work—at something which, at its heart and behind all the gloss, is extremely superficial. After a little more than a decade, I got pretty bored and gave up mainstream advertising. I was being given more and more responsibility, so it became a now- or-never kind of situation.

I’m not really competent to discuss the fundamental changes that have taken place in the advertising industry over the last 30 years. I’ve lost touch. But the intellectual dichotomy between being ideologically left-liberal, while depending on advertising to earn an income remains. We all know of filmmakers, musicians, cinematographers, and actors who depend on advertising as a source of income. All of them aren’t necessarily corporate torchbearers! There may be the occasional pangs of conscience, but it’s a fact of life.

The main thing that’s happened in Bangla cinema, with which I’m most familiar, over the last 20-25 years, is that the parallel or art cinema and mainstream cinema have converged to a large extent. Nobody talks about these categories as being separate or watertight any more. A sophisticated, urban, intelligent kind of storytelling has become the accepted idiom.

People go and see films because of the filmmaker rather than the star. Actors are becoming stars on the basis of their performances, not on the basis of their glamour quotient or six packs.

These are interesting times. Which is not to say that all is well; it never is. And how and why audience tastes have transformed would fill a book, which I hope someone will write.

MG: In an interview to The Hindu in August 2000, you said that “mediocrity” made commercial cinema tedious. Do you think commercial Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema, has changed and become more complex in recent years as new directors begin to make a mark?

DC: You know, the 1970s and ‘80s were times in which you turned up your nose. Either you turned it up at the commercial, mainstream cinema or at the parallel, socially conscious, political cinema. And the twain never met. The commercial cinema was labelled as being crude, both in form and content, sexist and basically reactionary in spite of the show it sometimes put on of standing up for “the common man.”

Progressive cinema, on the other hand, was branded as being elitist, boring and irresponsible—irresponsible in the financial sense, of constantly looking for government doles and loans (which were often not re-paid). And, with very, very honourable exceptions, this was a charge that couldn’t be entirely denied.

This situation has, of course, changed radically. For one thing, the media environment has transformed totally. You could argue that the cinema is no longer the main political platform. The Internet is. It’s cheaper, freer and you reach many more people. In the intolerant times in which we live, a truly political film has every chance of being shut down. I sometimes wonder whether Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy or Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati would have been allowed to run today without some bigot within government or outside raising an objection. I wonder if Shri Gajendra S Chauhan would have approved, but then, he’s unlikely to have seen them. And, certainly, if the I&B Ministry has issued notices to TV channels on telecasts after the Yakub Menon hanging, these films and a number of others made during the ‘70s may not have been telecast under any or all provisions of the Cable Television Network Rules' Programme Code.

The second important thing is that you can’t ignore the bottom line. Nobody’s going to subsidise you. No matter what channels you use, you’ve got to find an audience. Here again, the Internet and satellite television are changing the rules of the game.

And, thirdly, of course, audience perceptions and tastes have changed. Audiences want richer content, more professional execution. The space for that is being created. Whether that space will include explicitly political cinema as it was understood four decades ago, I’m not sure. There will be a need to step carefully and cannily.

MG: On a related note, what do you think of the present trends in the Bengali film industry?

DC: I don’t see Bangla cinema today as going so much through a period of transformation as a period of revival, of connecting again with a rich storytelling tradition with which it had lost touch. Think of Asit Sen, Ajay Kar, Tapan Sinha, Satyajit Ray, Tarun Majumdar, to name just a few of the master storytellers. It is starting to do again what it has always been very good at doing—telling good stories, sometimes unusual ones, to reasonably aware middle-class audiences, and telling them with flair.

Is it regaining the political consciousness of the 1970s? No. Is it directly addressing the turbulence of the times—Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh? No. Rural Bengal is almost totally out of its ambit and its consciousness is focussed exclusively on the turmoil of the urban middle-class psyche. Is it experimenting with form? No. The linear narrative is king. All of which is fine. Every cinema is a product of its times. This phase is a good, energetic and optimistic one; itwill play out one way or the other.

There are three things that seem a little worrisome to me. One is a self- congratulatory “we are the best” kind of attitude which may not be paying enough attention to what’s happening in cinema in other parts of India—Maharashtra and Kerala for example. In a recent Marathi film festival in Goa I saw marvellous films, rich with the kind of social content which I haven’t seen in Bangla cinema for years.

Secondly, the almost total absence of serious, well-informed film criticism. This has been ostracised by the media that has decided that the “page three” type of film journalism is the way to go.

And thirdly, the fear of failure. Amid all the talk of transformation and revival, box office success is a must. And if you stumble there, that’s it. You’re done.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.