Drama in real life: Why is India's leading film school in ferment?

FTII Image copyright Raksha Kumar
Image caption The Film and Television Institute of India is the country's leading film school

In June last year, some 200 students of India's leading film school brought it to a standstill.

The 139-day-strike at the state-owned Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) called for the suspension of the newly appointed chairman, claiming he was unqualified for the post.

A year later, not only does the chairman continue to hold office, but a proposal to change the fundamental structure of the institute is being seriously considered, agitating the students further.

The school currently has three-year core courses in direction, sound design, cinematography and editing.

The proposal suggests changing the course structure to include shorter skill-based courses, which would be outsourced to private production houses.

Critical condition

Apart from introducing a credit based system for evaluation, it also offers to make the institute non-residential. Currently, students from all over the country who enrol in the FTII, claim subsidised hostel facilities. A large number of them come from economically weaker backgrounds.

"If the changes are implemented, it would not only mean an end to the egalitarian structure of our film school, but also that we would be producing more technicians instead of artists," says Ajayan Adat, 28, a former student union leader.

The proposal received formal approval from the Governing Council of the school on 6 July, according to the Chairman, Gajendra Chauhan. The school director, Bhupendra Kainthola, said that the steps were being taken for the benefit of the institution and in favour of students.

The direction the film school takes now will be critical, given its contribution to Indian cinema over the years.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Alumnus Shyam Benegal says the film school should be digitised

The alumni includes most of the leading film makers and technicians of Indian cinema: Bollywood director Rajkumar Hirani, arthouse auteurs like Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul and Oscar-winning sound designer Rasool Pookutty.

While the alumni agree that the film school has structural and functional problems, their approach to finding a solution is different.

Some believe that financial independence from the state is the answer.

When he was the chairman of FTII in fact, Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt famously questioned the need for the government to subsidise film education when India didn't have enough drinking water.

State patronage

Others, however, say an expensive art like cinema cannot flourish without state patronage.

"This is a classic battle that art has to fight for survival in an increasingly capitalist era," says former student and filmmaker Kundan Shah. "There are no easy answers."

With an annual budget of $5.92m (£4m) FTII produces about 50 student films a year.

Many of them focus on oft-ignored social and economic issues. Several alumni continue to make films that are considered artistic and have a social message.

For instance, this year's national award was won by an FTII alumni, Nilanjan Dutta, who produced the first film in Arunachal Pradesh's Wancho language, spoken by not more than a few hundred tribespeople of the far-flung border state.

Image copyright Raksha Kumar
Image caption There have been close to 40 strikes in the FTII since its inception in 1961

"This is only possible because film learning doesn't feel like a heavy financial burden," said Mr Adat.

Private film schools in India charge students about $30,000 (£22,558) as tuition fee every year, about 200% more than the FTII.

"There is no way a student can graduate from such institutions and not think of making money," he added. "Such schools produce fantastic technicians and commercial film makers."

According to Kundan Shah, all good art needs state patronage. "The market doesn't care much for art," he said.

Privatising the institute will make FTII a polytechnic college, where skills are taught, he argued.

'Driving up fees'

And there are enough such spaces, he said, the government doesn't need to create one more.

"The government needs to fill gaps, and right now the gap is that there are very few institutions that treat cinema as art," he said.

Film maker and FTII alumni Girish Kasaravalli said he could not have become a film maker if not for an institution that provided subsidised education and excellent peer review.

One of the suggestions that have been made in the latest proposal is to completely digitise the film school. Currently, the students shoot on celluloid and use digital technology for post-production.

Students contend that digital technology requires massive storage capacities, constant upgradation and significantly more financial investment.

"It will be tough for the government to bear these costs alone, and this will push them to include private corporations in the functioning of the institute, which will drive up the fees," said Vikas Urs, 31, a cinematography student.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The 139-day-strike at school last year called for the suspension of the newly appointed chairman

Some of the leading film schools in the world still train students on celluloid and FTII students also believe that film is not dead.

But, some industry experts disagree.

"A film school should prepare its students for tomorrow, not yesterday," said Shyam Benegal, a former chairman of the institute.

According to him, the problem is to find a faculty that keeps itself abreast with the latest technology. "The question is not whether we should digitise, but how efficiently we can do so," he added.

'Evolved aesthetic'

The FTII was set up under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to create technicians for state-run radio and television channels. But it was not to remain so.

There have been close to 40 strikes in the FTII since its inception in 1961. "The space has always been provided for debate and expression of discontent," said Mr Urs.

Now the film school "must be inspired by an evolved aesthetic, not merely the demands of the market", and "must keep evolving its educational programmes and vision for India and for the world into its next 50 years", says a 2012 vision statement for the institute.

Most students, even today, stand by that report.

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