For Gajendra Chauhan, the second biggest role of his career comes after a wait of 25 years. Since portraying the righteous, lotus-eyed King Yudhisthir on the Doordarshan show Mahabharat (1988-90), the actor, now 58 years old, played bit parts in movies and TV and used his minor fame to campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party during elections. Recently, the information and broadcasting ministry named Chauhan the chairman of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. The only setback for him in this elevation is that the students of the film school want him out even before he starts his term.
They launched a strike at FTII, questioning Chauhan’s credentials and dubbing his appointment “political”. Despite this, the actor does not plan to retreat. In his apartment in suburban Mumbai, a huge flat-screen television amplifies headlines on the dissent over his appointment. Dressed in jeans and a glossy black kurta, Chauhan observes with a wry smile, “Yeh toh Mahabharat ho gaya.”
Raised in Delhi, Chauhan is most comfortable speaking in Hindi, he says. His intonation in casual chats is not unlike that of characters in mythological soaps.
He wants judgements to be made after being given a chance at FTII. He was interviewed by the government in January and given the task for his “passion for work”, he says. To prove he has merit, he refers to a diploma in radiography from AIIMS, an incomplete diploma in hospital administration and a 20-year stint managing the Cine and Television Artists’ Association. Chauhan then outlines plans to upgrade technology at FTII, take care of audit reports and clear a backlog of students who have not graduated since 2008-09.
It is not new for a ruling party to appoint people associated with it, he says. Chauhan feels his party ties will in fact accelerate decision-making. “I can be a link between FTII and the Government of India, which would be just a telephone call away.” But students worry this and the overt saffron links of other newly appointed governing council members including Anagha Ghaisas and Narendra Pathak could hamper freedom of expression.
There had been tension on campus over the last few years during screenings of films by Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma, says Kislay Gonzalvez, a member of the student’s association. The government must replace Chauhan with a serious film maker, he stresses.
Some reports said the likes of Gulzar and Shyam Benegal were overlooked to favour the junior actor. At over 75 years, Benegal says he was never in the running, though responsibilities are limited to conducting two society meetings to check if courses are on track.
Chauhan’s career reportedly includes 600 shows and 150 films. After Mahabharat, he is proud of having played Bobby Deol’s father in Barsaat. He searches his memory for names from FTII lineage with whom he has worked, such as Roshan Taneja and Danny Denzongpa but pleads not to be judged “by the past” or his “reel life”. This is because it had not taken long for students to circulate clips from his stints in B-rated movies and teleshopping programmes.
Chauhan, who is admittedly unacquainted with international cinema, says a creative film is one with a message to the masses to improve the country’s system. “I’m an artist first,” he assures. “Everyone has their political ideology. Mine will stay outside the gates of FTII.” But in a later TV interview, when asked if students would be allowed to make films critical of the prime minister, he was hesitant: “That will depend on what stand I take at that time.”