Rallying around students of the Film and Television Institute of India, who withdrew their four-month long strike last week, 24 filmmakers announced on Thursday that they were returning their National Awards to the central government.

Most prominent among them are Kundan Shah, who directed Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in 1983, Saeed Mirza, who has won National Awards for his films Mohan Joshi Hazar Ho (1984) and Naseem (1996) and Virendra Saini, cinematographer of 1990 film Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. Mirza also released an individual statement to express his protest.

The list of film personalities also includes Sanjay Kak, Tapan Bose, Madhushree Dutta, Arundhati Roy, Pradip Krishen, Ranjit Palit, Shriprakash, Tarun Bhartiya, Amitabh Chakraborty, Anwar Jamal, Ajay Raina, Irene Dhar Malik, PM Satheesh, Satya Rai Nagpaul, Manoj Lobo, Rafeeq Ellias, Sudheer Palsane, Vivek Sachidanand, Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti, Dr Manoj Nitharwal and Abhimanyu Dange.

In a letter to the Prime Minister and President, the filmmakers praised FTII students for taking the “high moral ground” by “retreating from the appallingly non-committal meetings with the I&B ministry” and withdrawing their protest against the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the institute’s governing council (and the appointment of four other officials with no background in filmmaking as members of the council).

The decision to return National Awards, the letter said, was also a response to the government’s disparaging attitude towards 12 filmmakers – including Anand Patwardhan and Dibakar Banerjee – who chose to return their own awards last week.

The letter stated:
“We watched with disappointment how the ruling party’s leaders and supporters abused these filmmakers and belittled their gesture. This has been the consistent response of the powers that be, towards the writers, academics, scientists, filmmakers, historians and artists who have expressed their dismay over the increasing climate of intolerance. Rather than see our fellow filmmakers mocked, we have decided to stand with them and yet again bring public attention back to the manner in which the current government is responding to dissent and debate.”

The filmmakers also criticised the ministry of information and broadcasting for refusing to license the screening of Caste on the Menu Card, a student film on the recent controversy surrounding the beef ban in Maharashtra.

“If a film that discusses the beef issue is blocked with ease, then we can imagine what culture of censorship will be put into place when students are learning and experimenting with the language of cinema at the FTII campus,” the filmmakers said in their letter. “If the learning process at FTII is in danger of being marred so brazenly, we have to speak up as members of the film fraternity.”

Several of the filmmakers also released individual statements to clarify why they were returning their awards. Here are some excerpts from some of their statements:

Arundhati Roy, National Award for best screenplay, In Which Annie gives it Those Ones, (1988): (Read Roy's full statement here.)
“I want to make it clear that I am not returning this award because I am ‘shocked’ by what is being called the ‘growing intolerance’ being fostered by the present government. First of all, ‘intolerance’ is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings. Second, we had plenty of advance notice of what lay in store for us—so I cannot claim to be shocked by what has happened after this government was enthusiastically voted into office with an overwhelming majority.”

Pradip Krishen, National Award for best feature film in English, In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1988) and Electric Moon (1992):
“All across this country, artists and writers and academics have come together to forge this movement of protest. The government says it is ‘manufactured’ and the work of a small minority that is not in touch with reality. But it will discover soon enough that we are just the tip of the iceberg.... I work today in the sphere of the Environment, where this government’s policies are even more nakedly regressive. In sphere after sphere – forest clearance, wildlife conservation, river-linking, and the various ways in which all these aspects impact forest-dwelling adivasis – we see this government pursuing reckless policies that are crafted to suit the needs and appetites of mining companies and greedy corporates.”

PM Satheesh, National Award for best audiography, Kumar Talkies (1999):
“I am returning my National Award protesting against the inappropriate appointments at the FTII... It’s appalling to see that the present appointments are based on sheer political affiliations rather than credentials. I am also protesting against the larger inaction of authorities towards growing incidents of intolerance and gagging of independent voices at a scale that has never been seen before in independent India... I evaluate the present situation in the country as alarming with the interference of the Govt. reaching the dining tables of private citizens.”

Madhushree Dutta, three National Awards for Memories of Fear (1996), Scribbles on Akka (1991) and Fried Fish, Chicken Soup And a Premiere Show (2012):
“The National Award is not only an honour but also a responsibility – to work towards upholding the conscience of the country; to fight the dominant forms of social amnesia; to foreground the stories that are being strategically and systematically erased; to enhance the ethos of democracy in order to let creativity bloom; to toil to make this country a little healthier and richer with each film, each poem, each cuisine and each debate. In recent months we have witnessed an erosion of the space from which such initiatives can stem.”

Sanjay Kak, two National Awards for In the Forest Hangs a Bridge (1999) and Geeli Mitti (1984):
“The writers, poets, scholars, artists and filmmakers who have raised their voices in protest are being accused of playing politics. Now is the time for them to acknowledge that they are – and this is not an accident, it is what the times are forcing upon all of us. Our politics must now include rising in defence of our right to an India different from the one being pushed down our throats by this Government and its storm-troopers.”