New Delhi, Oct 12: The appointment of veteran actor Anupam Kher, known for his power-packed performances in some of India's best films, as the chairperson of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Maharashtra, should have uplifted the mood of all film lovers, especially after the end of the controversial term of former head of the institute, a little-known actor with equally little contributions to cinema, Gajendra Chauhan, on Wednesday.
However, times are different and so are the reactions. Along with congratulatory notes received by the 62-year-old actor, who made a stellar debut with his magnificent performance in Saaransh in 1984 and followed it up with many such brilliant acting outings both on the silver screen and on the stage, for being appointed as the head of FTII, there were also loud noises of protest from several quarters (including students of the FTII) opposing the latest decision of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry.
Protest over Kher's appointment as the chief of FTII did not come as a surprise, as many feel that the actor, who has dabbled in all genres of cinema, got the plump position for sharing close ties with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) like his predecessor Chauhan.
While appointment of Chauhan, whose only claim to fame was the role of Yudhishthir he played in BR Chopra's hit Doordarshan series, Mahabharata, and appearances in several B-grade films, was met with stiff opposition by students of the FTII and several well-known names from the film fraternity, including Kher in 2015, this time around noises of protest against Kher's appointment too can't be ignored.
Kher's association with the saffron is not only the fact that his wife and actor-turned-politician Kirron is a BJP member of Parliament (MP) from Chandigarh, but the actor himself is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
The Padma Bhushan winner's first big brush with "politics" began when he took out a march against the "Award Wapsi" campaign in the national capital in 2015, stating that the opponents of the BJP and the PM were painting a wrong picture of the country by raising the issue of "rising intolerance".
"India is a very tolerant country. Some people have coined the term 'growing intolerance'. They are very few. Not every Indian thinks like that. We are secular people. We do not believe in pseudo-secularism, selective outrage or selective patriotism," Kher had said then.
"We had a meeting with a lot of writers, artistes, filmmakers and they also believe that there is no intolerance in the country... This march is a symbolic gesture on part of a lot of people over here who say India is one and free of intolerance," he added.
Since then, he has been vocally lambasting critics of the Modi government on social media and his tweets are a testimony to it.
Sample this tweet of Kher in 2015.
"Some more usual suspects who never wanted @narendramodi to become PM in d first place have joined the #AwardWapsi gang. Jai ho.:)."
His support for the saffron party was out again when on February 20, 2016, he tweeted against protest led by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid.
Kher tweeted then: "Gharo'n mein pest control hota hai toh cockroach, keede makaude ityadi baahar nikalte hai'n. Ghar saaf hota hai. Vaise hi aajkal desh ka pest control chal raha hai" (Cockroaches, insects and vermin emerge when a house has pest control. It cleans the house. Similarly, there is pest control going on in the country").
On March 19, the same year, Kher visited the JNU to promote a movie and tweeted, along with pictures of the crowd, "Slogans of #BharatMataKiJai & #VandeMatram today purified #JNU of slogans chanted earlier on 9th Feb.:) #Patriotism".
Once again, on February 28 this year, during a time when a soldier's daughter, Gurmehar Kaur, said it was war and not Pakistan that had killed her father in Kargil, and when demonetisation was a current issue, Kher tweeted: "The Intorant Gang is back. Same faces, different slogans.:) #Intolerance #AwardWapsi #Emergency #DemonitisationDisaster #BharatKeTukde".
Kher is also closely associated with a news television channel known to be run by a BJP MP where the actor does a film-based show.
The actor's soft corner for right wing politics came to the forefront on several occasions as he spoke passionately in favour of the Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced to leave the Valley due to the alleged persecution by the native Muslim population.
In July 2016, he posted controversial pictures of Kashmiri Pandits and tweeted: "Here is pic of butchered bodies of Kashmiri Pandits killed by terrorists. No outrage or concern by Pseudo liberals!"
After being criticised for the pictures, he responded: "Remember brutal killing of innocent people is not supposed to have an expiry date."
He also posted an angry tweet after getting snubbed during the Padma awards back in 2010 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power at the Centre.
However, when he was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 2016 by the present BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government he was full of praises for award ceremonies.
"AWARDS in our country have become a mockery of our system. There is NO authenticity left in any one of them.B it films, National or now PADMA," Kher's tweet in 2010.
"Happy, Humbled & Honoured to share that i have been awarded The PADMA BHUSHAN by the Govt. of India. Greatest news of my life:) #JaiHind," Kher's tweet in 2016.
Along with blaming the Muslim people of the Valley for the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, the actor is also known for his anti-Pakistani stand, which is in sync with the present NDA government.
Earlier, Kher claimed that Pakistan had denied him a visa to attend a literature festival. "Has my visa been denied because I speak about India's rich tradition of tolerance or I am a Kashmiri Pandit who may expose Pak terror nexus?" he tweeted. The Pakistani High Commission responded with a tweet that it had "never" received a visa application from Kher, so the question of "issuing or denying him visa does not arise".
After the news of Kher's appointment as the head of FTII came to light on Wednesday, it already became "political" as the Congress was one of the first few organisations/individuals to question the choice of the I&B ministry.
"The country is seeing what all he has been saying. Less to do with cinema, more to do with politics", the Congress said on the appointment of veteran actor as chairperson of the FTII.
Congress spokesperson RPN Singh told reporters that Kher was a good actor who had given some immense performances on TV as well as on big screen.
"But you and I and the country knows why he has been made the chairman of the FTII...," he said.
Even students of FTII said the government's move to appoint Bollywood actor as its chairperson was "crazy" and "another joke" after Chauhan's appointment triggered 139-day strike in 2015.
"How can Kher head FTII when he is already running a private acting school?" Harishankar Nachimuthu, a student of the FTII, was quoted as asking by Hindustan Times.
Kher runs the institute, Actor Prepares, in Mumbai. Nachimuthu said the students at FTII don't see any difference between Chauhan and Kher, both known supporters of the BJP.
"We had expected this from the government," Nachimuthu told Hindustan Times.
Regarding the "clash of interest" that the FTII job poses since he owns and runs his own acting school in Mumbai, Kher was quoted as saying by The Quint, "Oh them! They have always been around whenever I have been given a governmental position. When I was made the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), they said there would be a clash of interest with my relationship with producers and the film fraternity.
"When I took up stage acting very seriously they said there would be a clash of interest with my film assignments... so if they had not come forward now I'd have missed them. But no, I am not worried about any clash of interest. I prioritise my various commitments in a very systematic way."
As far as the students of the FTII are concerned, Kher told The Quint, "Wait and watch. Let me first catch my breath, interact with you and then let me do my job. Judge me after that."
Kher is right in a way. His critics should give him sometime before judging his efficiency as an administrator to run the country's premier film school. Or, should Kher take all the criticism in his stride to uplift the morale of the students of FTII by bringing much-needed changes in the way India makes movies through a bunch of aspiring filmmakers, technicians and actors?