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MUMBAI: Remember the last scene from the film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron when the two characters Vinod and Sudhir turn to the camera and make a cut-throat gesture signifying the death of justice? On Thursday afternoon, Kundan Shah, maker of this cult comedy, repeated the throat-slitting gesture while returning his national award for the same film- that satirized corruption in the country-with which he had made his debut.
Shah was part of a list of 24 members from the film fraternity including prominent names like filmmaker Saeed Mirza, cinematographer Virendra Saini and writer Arundhati Roy who added their medals to the growing pile of returned awards, giving greater momentum to the act of 12 frontline filmmakers returning the national awards a week ago over the government's "apathy" in addressing students' issues at FTII and the environment of intolerance.
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Even though the deadlock at the Film and Television Institute of India has ended, the dissenting voices returning their awards, each with an individual explanation, spanned almost the entire spectrum of the film industry including filmmakers, screenplay writers, audiographers, cinematographers, editors and docu-filmmakers with FTII alumni as the majority. "We are trying to bring public attention back to the manner in which the current government is responding to dissent and debate," read the joint statement addressed to the President and Prime Minister of India.
Arundhati Roy, who had previously turned down the Sahitya Akademi award in 2005 when the Congress was in power, stated: "I am very pleased to have found a National Award (best screenplay for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones) that I can return because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers and academics in the country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness... "
What seems to have stoked the tolerance debate further and fanned this fresh wave of outburst has been a series of recent incidents when the screening of a student film on caste politics was stopped because of the mention of beef and certain leaders of the ruling party belittling Shah Rukh Khan, among others.
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The gesture that was meant to be a plea to the government to take notice of students' demands and resolve their issue was also a protest against "growing intolerance" in the country, both of which Mirza felt were interlinked. Mirza, who was incidentally the last chairman of FTII, said, "They're not separate issues. The selection of the governing council reflects the government's interference in cultural affairs. There has to be a process in place to appoint the best person to head an institution of national importance."
"Today is a breaking point when everyone is feeling slaughtered," cited Bina Sarkar Ellias, a writer representing filmmaker Rafeeq Ellias, when asked why they had not returned their awards during past instances of intolerance. Shah pointed out, "We've protested through our works, films and serials against the Congress government too. My serial Police Station got banned in 1985 by Doordarshan but why repeat the mistakes we've made in the past. It's no longer about intolerance, it's torture and threatens everyone's freedom... A larger design to take over our cultural and educational institutions."
While medals of those returning awards will be handed to a member of the I&B ministry, the money they earned through the cash prizes will be donated to individual charities of their choice.
While Shah is hopeful that not all may be lost and this act might signal to the political powers-that-be to "pay attention to the fears and focus their rigidity on the right things," what could eventually be the aftermath of this protest? "Frankly, I don't know. All I know is I have to raise my voice against this state of affairs," said Mirza.