The story goes, Ritwik Ghatak bestowed lessons on life and movies to his students under this tree, over copious amounts of rum and whisky. The wisdom tree at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) still has a mythical quality. Last year, while I was at the campus for a seminar, I met a student immersed in a Korean film playing on his Mac, right under a sprawling branch. “You have to sit here if you come to FTII, it’s the most important place,” he told me. He wasn’t being sarcastic.
Fifty years after it was set up by the Union government to create an environment where students from all over the country could learn about cinema, FTII is wedged uneasily between purist cinephilia and digital democracy. Late last year, the campus was at war against Hewitt Associates for submitting a report, outlining ways to revamp its model. It proposed shortterm courses such as “Business of Entertainment” and “Shooting for self-shooters” which would cost Rs4-14 lakh. The idea, it said, was to generate revenue for the institute, burdened by 12 courses, a growing number of students and poor infrastructure. Currently, the annual fee for a direction student is Rs70,000 and around 350 students live on campus.
Mythical: The famed tree at FTII.
FTII’s history is rife with bitter student agitations that have thrown classes into disarray. Until about five years ago, you couldn’t miss the decadent Marxist hangover. A three-year course could run to four years. Students could take months beyond the span of their course to complete their diploma projects. Some students told me neo-realists and European masters continue to be heroes in classrooms. It is not hard to believe that. I have met many FTII graduates, most of them very skilled and successful technicians working in the film industry in Mumbai, who love to pooh-pooh American films and Mira Nair.
The institute needs more hostel space, better projection facilities and equipment, and new direction and imagination in its syllabi. The biggest challenge it faces is: How do you keep pace with the altered democratic and diverse movie world and yet retain the environment of free thinking and knowledge that it is famous for? Can revenue from more short-term courses do that? Perhaps not.
To begin with, a better alternative is available with the government itself—allocate a few crores from the entertainment tax collected for infrastructure upgradation. Perhaps some involvement from FTII’s most successful alumni, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Rajkumar Hirani, David Dhawan and Mahesh Bhatt, wouldn’t hurt.
Samarth Dixit, president of the students’ association of FTII, told Lounge in December, as the institute was forced to turn down Hewitt’s proposal, that if these changes were implemented, FTII “will be reduced to a polytechnic”.Students want a subsidized and inclusive fee structure because that allows students from smaller places in India to study and live here.
I spoke to Arunima Sharma, a 26-year-old graduate from 2010 who had finished her diploma film, Shyam Raat Seher, about four dysfunctional people (one of them is the Hindu god Krishna) braving a cruel night in Mumbai.“Very few film schools in the world can give you a 35mm camera and free film stock to learn how to make a film. It’s utopian for somebody who is passionate about making good films, learning about cinema as an art,” she said. She says guest professors do show them new Asian cinema and independent films from around the world. “The direction department is quite directionless, and we definitely need more infrastructure.”
Recently, in the chat show Koffee with Karan, director Rajkumar Hirani summed up the best FTII can offer: “At the institute it was about making that one movie. I try to retain that hunger.”