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Listen without prejudice. Decide without bias: Dibakar Banerjee

Poster boy of offbeat Hindi films, Dibakar Banerjee explains why he decided to return a national honour 

One of the most influential filmmakers from among 10 National Award winners, who announced on Wednesday that they will return their awards to show solidarity towards protesting Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) students who, until this week had been in a logjam with the government, over the appointment of the institute’s chairman BJP member Gajendra Chauhan, Dibakar Banerjee hasn’t lost hope. The act, he says, is an urgent appeal, not resignation.

Dibakar Banerjee
Dibakar Banerjee Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee speaks at a press conference after returning his National Award in protest against the government over the FTII students’ strike. PIC/PTI

The filmmaker, who has won two National Awards (Khosla Ka Ghosla; 2008 and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! 2010), had joined 9 colleagues from the film fraternity to express his anguish over political interference in education and the general atmosphere of intolerance in the country, evident in the Dadri lynching following the beef ban row and the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi allegedly by right-wing fringe groups. “Freedom of expression is not mere words for us, it is a way of life we hold dear. Each life led differently from the mainstream is precious, we must fight for this right to pray, eat, love, work as we wish,” he and the others wrote in a letter addressed to the PM and President, made public on Wednesday.

In his first interview since the incident, Banerjee reaffirms his faith in the constitutional heads of state but also has a bit of advice to offer.

Q. Was the decision by you and nine filmmakers to return your National Awards spontaneous or had you mulled over it?
A. It was both. There has been a rising worry among film professionals about the situation at FTII [students staying out of class and protesting the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman]. A deadlock has prevented the formulation of a transparent process to appoint the chairperson, the governing body and the repeal of four politically motivated nominations in the same body. As senior film personalities, students and ex-students tried for 120 days to resolve the matter with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and nothing came out of it, some of us came together to draw attention to the issue and appeal.

Q. Are you hopeful that your appeal will be heard considering your letter to the PM and President written barely a month ago is yet to receive a reply?
A. It is important that we don’t lose hope in the constitutional heads of the country. If we do, it means we are losing hope in the Constitution and our country. I can’t imagine that, however hard I try.

Q. But the government isn’t budging from its stand.
A. I don’t think it’s that simple. You see, protracted negotiations can be confusing, messy. A stand may change over time. I also think that young students and senior bureaucrats on two sides of the table are a potent and explosive mix. But someone senior has to take a benevolent and constructive stand to guide the negotiations to an end where the FTII becomes an institute free of any political agenda —whether right or left — and support a free educational environment where the people who guide the institute are chosen on the basis of merit rather than their political beliefs.

Q. The returning of awards can be misconstrued — that you stand against a particular political party.
A. No, it [the protest] is not against any party. It cannot be. Because I cannot believe that the BJP is responsible for this. They have a huge national mandate; they were voted in by the nation that wanted a change. No party with this sort of majority can be insecure. I think it’s a combination of local level sycophancy, jockeying and bureaucratic egos that have led us here. I am neither for the Left nor the Right. A country as poor as India, where education, food and shelter are wanting, cannot afford the luxury of extreme political stances. I, like millions of other worried citizens, parents and professionals, want our education to deliver the right goods.

Q. Are you disillusioned?
A. There is no question of losing hope. Who would have thought that so many film professionals will come together on one issue when we have been unable to agree on something as simple as the Entertainment Tax? What is happening in FTII might be reflective of the atmosphere across institutes in the country. We need to protect our education system from political influence just the way we need to protect our judicial and legal system. As citizens, parents, teachers, professionals, and Indians, we need to speak up and persuade positive action.

Q. What should the government do according to you?
A. Protect the students from harassment and overzealous bureaucratic and political vendetta. Listen without prejudice. Decide without bias. And act now.

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