Having passed the written entrance exam (which was not at all easy), I first stepped onto the FTII campus in 2010 for my orientation program and interview. At the entrance, I was greeted by students – my seniors – protesting and shouting slogans at the top of their voices.
As a freshman, I didn’t completely understand why they were opposing the Hewitt Associates’ recommendation to privatise the Film Institute. I had heard of the institute’s backlogs and inability to complete courses on time, so I felt that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, then under Ambika Soni, was taking the right step by considering the proposal.
Almost five years since that day, I now stand where my seniors once stood, striking against the inappropriate appointment of the new members of the FTII Society, with Gajendra Chauhan as its head and so the Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India.
Why am I striking?
For one thing, I am a twenty-eight year-old, socially aware adult who has been selected to study at this prestigious institution of international repute after a very rigorous admission process. For another, I have chosen to make films with ethics and beliefs that hold true to my society, my culture and my art, and I do not want to simply pump money into the commercial market of the mainstream film industry.
Each student at the FTII is handpicked from the thousands who apply from the world over. Only twelve students are admitted annually to each of the five year-long courses (Direction and Screenplay Writing, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Recording and Design, Art Direction), and a mere ten to the acting course.1
It is the idea of the FTII as a space, complete in itself, that we are fighting to protect.
For the Killas and Courts
Whistling Woods, Subhash Ghai’s private film school in Mumbai, charges its students anywhere from thirteen to nineteen lakhs for its courses2. If FTII were privatised in a similar fashion, our Killas and Courts would disappear. A huge section of students would be denied quality education in the art of filmmaking, and Indian cinema would lose the plurality of expression that comes from graduates working in regional film industries. Cinema can be very personal and very political, but the stories come from the filmmakers.
Out with the old, in with the new
We are undergoing a transition. Cinema is turning from traditional film to digital formats, so an institute with state-of-the-art equipment only for 35mm and 16mm film will have to reinvent itself right from scratch. It must be updated with better resources to be at par with digitally advanced studios operating domestically and abroad, because students finally work in an industry which largely uses digital media.
This is not a simple , inexpensive task .
It is impossible for a film school’s infrastructure to be inexpensive– cameras, lights, sound recorders, editing studios and other necessities come with hefty price tags – but the argument that the upgradation of the FTII will be a waste of taxpayers’ money is baseless.
An investment in Indian ethos, not a waste
There is only one government-funded institute in all of India that teaches cinema, and the tax paid by FTII alumni working in mainstream media probably amounts to a significant portion, if not all, of the money spent on the institute. We do pay a fee, our courses are not free. Hundreds of graduates from IITs and IIMs leave India to work abroad, but FTII graduates give back to the culture and ethos of Indian society.
Set up in 1961 with the aim of promoting good alternative cinema and setting new standards in filmmaking, both aesthetically and technically, FTII has provided a free space for thinking and learning to generations of prospective filmmakers. In the course of its existence, FTII has produced stalwarts like Girish Kasaravalli, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Subhash Ghai, Kumar Shahani, Rajkumar Hirani, Santosh Sivan, Resul Pookutty and Sudeepto Chatterjee. Students’ works have been recognised at national and international platforms such as at Berlin, Cannes, Venice and the Academy Awards.
This varied spectrum of work has been possible because the FTII has been guided by the principles and work ethic of personalities such as Saeed Mirza, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Vinod Khanna, Mrinal Sen, R. K. Laxman and Gulzar. These pioneers have always maintained and encouraged the universal tenets of freedom of thought and expression. The right to dissent, central to curiosity among students and plurality of expression, was always championed by the visionary Ritwik Ghatak, a former Vice Principal of FTII.
The presence of such individuals has nurtured a spirit of non-conformism, which has steered the FTII to a position independent of any particular worldview or political affiliation. This unique place has to be respected, preserved and nourished.
The crux of the matter – incompetence
The appointment of the new FTII Society headed by Gajendra Chauhan, with Anagha Ghaisas, Narendra Pathak, Rahul Solapukar and Shailesh Gupta as members, raises a lot of question for me.
These newly appointed members do not have the esteemed credentials erstwhile members of the FTII Society have. The newly appointed members’ work does not reflect the kind of contribution expected of bodies such as the FTII Society or the FTII Governing Council.
Anagha Ghaisas produces documentaries, but her films have never won any critical acclaim at either the The Indian Economist For the Curious Mind national or international level, nor has her work been recognised by the larger film fraternity. She also has strong links with the RSS3 , and most of her films work towards supporting the views and ideas of that organisation. Narendra Pathak is the erstwhile president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Rahul Solapurkar is a mainstream Marathi actor, but neither is he an FTII alumnus nor has he been associated with the institute in any way. His only qualification, it seems, is his closeness to the BJP. It goes without saying that everyone knows about Gajendra ‘Yudhishthir’ Chauhan through the Khuli Khidki of mainstream media.
Questionable appointments, questionable future
It is but natural for my colleagues and me to oppose these appointments and go on strike. That today appointments in the FTII are being made solely on the basis of political affiliations is daunting, and there is a huge question mark lingering above our immediate future at the institute.
Our concerns have been echoed across the country by various artists, student organisations and civil rights groups. When seen against the backdrop of appointments at institutions such as the NCERT, the IITs, and the IIAS, the resistance of students at the FTII gains a lot more significance.
The appointments at the FTII have raised grave questions regarding the logic and process of the selection procedure. Some members of the FTII Society have insensitively dismissed the students’ protests. This is disheartening for it proves that those members do not share the same pluralistic vision that the FTII has nurtured for the last fifty-five years. The members’ extreme and polarising positions, reflected in their work, do not promise a better future for the FTII as an autonomous and independent art institution.
Just after the BJP came to power, the I&B Ministry visited the FTII campus where they said that the FTII needs to be upgraded to an institution of national importance. A year on, the ministry has made incompetent people the heads of this nationally important institute.
Koel Sen is a student of film direction in her final year at the FTII. She should have been shooting her diploma projects in August 2015, but now, with the state of the appointments at the institute and the ongoing strike, her future there is a huge question mark.