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

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

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.

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