Gajendra who? Why not Amitabh Bachchan?

Graffiti in an office at the Film and Television Institute of India reflects the sentiments of the students. Some people fear that the choice of BJP member Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute signals a push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's
Graffiti in an office at the Film and Television Institute of India reflects the sentiments of the students. Some people fear that the choice of BJP member Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute signals a push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party for control of the institute.PHOTO: REUTERS

Growing dissent over BJP's choice of little-known actor to lead India's film institute

For a month, more than 200 students at the Film and Television Institute of India have been protesting against the appointment of a little-known actor as its chairman.

They have refused to attend classes and now face the threat of expulsion for their protests against former actor and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Gajendra Chauhan who, according to Indian media reports, was chosen by the government last month from a list of names that included superstars such as Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan.

While the government said it chose a candidate who could devote time to the institute, which is based in the southern city of Pune, students said Mr Chauhan, best known for a role in popular television epic Mahabharat, did not have the stature to lead an institute headed in the past by well-known Indian film luminaries.

Others see it as an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP-led government to eventually gain control of the film institute.

"It is frustrating that there is so much interference of politicians. It is not right. It is a creative institution and there should not be so much political interference," said Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a video post.

After winning office, Indian political parties often appoint people of their choice to certain academic and cultural institutions. Many posts are given out as a reward to those who have worked for the party.

About half-a-dozen appointments in the past year have generated criticism. Critics said they were chosen only for their links to the ruling BJP and its affiliates.

These include last year's appointment of Mr Y. Sudershan Rao - who led an outfit connected to the Hindu-nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, an autonomous body that funds research scholars.

A number of prominent Indian historians criticised the appointment, saying Mr Rao did not have the body of work for the post.

Other appointments include Mr Pahlaj Nihalani, whose work includes a video tribute for Mr Modi, as Central Board of Film Certificate chairman in January this year.

Among his first actions was to put up a list of more than two dozen banned words that included swear words and words like Bombay, the old name for Mumbai. The list also included a directive to not glorify bloodshed. Mr Nihalani was forced to take back the list following an uproar, but it triggered fears that these appointments could bring in a new level of orthodoxy.

BJP leaders dismiss the criticism and said the government has the sovereign right to make such appointments.  "Every time somebody affiliated to the BJP comes, then it's saffronisation, but there is no problem when someone affiliated to the Left or Congress is appointed," said a BJP leader who did not want to be named.

 Saffronisation, named after the saffron robes worn by Hindu sages, is a term used in India to refer to Hindu-nationalist policies.

For now, Mr Chauhan has said his political affiliations would not colour his work for the institute. But not many are buying it.

"Mr Chauhan should listen to the students," said top Bollywood actor Salman Khan this week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Gajendra who? Why not Amitabh Bachchan?'. Print Edition | Subscribe