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FTII alumni, including Rajkummar Rao, tell what the institute has meant to their careers in cinema

The debate over who should head the Film and Television Institute of India has raised the question: why do we need an FTII? Five alumni tell Premankur Biswas what the institute has meant to their careers in cinema.

Written by Premankur Biswas | Mumbai | Updated: August 30, 2015 11:09:19 am

The debate over who should head the Film and Television Institute of India has raised the question: why do we need an FTII? Five alumni tell Premankur Biswas what the institute has meant to their careers in cinema.

Rajkummar Rao, 30
Acting, Class of 2008

Rajkummar Rao, Nishtha jain, dev Agarwal, gurvinder Singh, Anil Mehta, FTII, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Debate, FTII Institute, FTII Discussion, Entertainmnent news Rajkummar Rao.

rajkummar rao is prone to underplay his achievements. At 27, he won the Best Actor award at the National Awards in 2013 for Shahid, becoming one of the youngest actors to do so — but few know about that. But there is one thing that he doesn’t want to underplay: his education as an actor at FTII. “People claim that no good actors came out of FTII after Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. What they don’t know is that the acting course was closed for 26 years and reopened only in 2004,” says Rao, who graduated in 2008. The actor, who is scheduled to star in Aamir Khan’s much-talked about project, Dangal, next year, feels that the school has attracted a lot of bad press for “nothing”. “Whatever I am today is mostly because of my training at FTII. It taught me to be disciplined as an actor. People accuse us of being lazy and presume that we smoke up and laze about in the campus, which is not true at all. FTII courses are hard work,” he says.

The Hindi film industry is respectful of the institution, says Rao. “People in the industry know that FTII students have a different and an honest approach towards work. The place gave me a voice and the ability to see things from a different perspective,” he says.

Talks of privatising the institute worries Rao. “The kind of environment that we have in the institute is something you can’t find anywhere else. You are breathing, thinking, talking, living cinema 24/7 — that shouldn’t change ” he says.

Nishtha Jain, 50
Direction, Class of 1998

Rajkummar Rao, Nishtha jain, dev Agarwal, gurvinder Singh, Anil Mehta, FTII, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Debate, FTII Institute, FTII Discussion, Entertainmnent news Nishtha Jain

When filmmaker Nishtha Jain joined FTII, she was disappointed with the quality of instruction at the institute. “It was a very male dominated place, there wasn’t a single woman in the entire faculty. Ours was the first batch with eight female students in the direction batch,” says Jain, whose film Gulabi Gang received the Best Film on Social Issues, and the Best Non-Feature Film editing at the 61st National Film Awards. Most students, says Jain, learn on their own by watching films and assisting seniors. “We learnt from our own mistakes. Except for one professor, I don’t recall being encouraged by any of the others. We seriously lacked in the script-writing department. Filmmakers and inspiring teachers like Mani Kaul were also not around in our time,” she says.

During Jain’s stay at FTII, the administration decided to shorten the course to two years. The student community unanimously went on strike opposing the decision. “Even three years are not sufficient to cover the syllabi and shortening it to two years would have been a complete disaster. Our strike was successful; we managed to retain the three-year structure and the two-year editing course was extended to a three years,” she says.

After graduating in 1998, Jain started making non-fiction films, winning a slew of awards. Lakshmi and Me (2008) explored the filmmaker’s relationship with her domestic help; 6 Yards of Democracy (2006), looks at the sordid side of Indian democracy through a stampede incident in a sari-distributing camp, and Gulabi Gang (2012), is about a group of fiery women and their fight against gender violence, caste oppression and corruption.

While working as an independent filmmaker, Jain rediscovered the institute through fellow alumni. “I work with a lot of young FTIIians and they’re talented and come from all walks of life,” she says. That’s why, Jain feels FTII needs autonomy, and not privatisation. “If you privatise FTII, it will be out of bounds for the economically backward candidates. Currently, the institute is one of the few remaining syncretic places, with students from all backgrounds and regions. That should be maintained at all cost,” she says. FTII needs a chairperson with a vision and a plan, but definitely not a political party worker to push their agenda, says Jain. “The chairperson has to be someone who has passion for cinema and knows how to bring various stake holders to the table to trouble-shoot,” she says.

Dev Agarwal, 31
Cinematography, Class of 2010

Rajkummar Rao, Nishtha jain, dev Agarwal, gurvinder Singh, Anil Mehta, FTII, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Debate, FTII Institute, FTII Discussion, Entertainmnent news Dev Agarwal

“Getting through FTII was a dream come true,” says Dev Agarwal, who graduated from the department of cinematography in 2010. Four years later, he made his Bollywood debut in Hansal Mehta’s Citylights, capturing the journey of a migrant couple, played by fellow FTII graduates, Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha, from Rajasthan to Mumbai. Agarwal shows the dark side of the mighty metropolis, its capacity to turn good people into desperate creatures, crippled by poverty and hard luck.

Born in Kolkata, Agarwal completed his BA in Mass Communication and Film Studies from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and decided to apply to FTII. “There were only 10 seats and I consider myself lucky that I got through,” he says. Agarwal feels FTII benefits from the “brilliant workshops” conducted by past students. “Many working professionals such as Santosh Sivan, CK Murlidharan, Barun Mukherjee and many others came to campus. FTII is a place where students are not conditioned and you are a free thinker. You discover your own voice and you are never a carbon copy of someone else,” he says.

When Agarwal decided to make documentaries after graduating, he was encouraged by his peers and professors. “You don’t go to FTII only to build a career. You love the art and craft of cinema and FTII is probably the only place in the country where it is taught in its purest form,” says Agarwal. He recently finished work on a non-fiction film, Unheard Voices…and notes to myself, and Invasion 1897, his first international project in West Africa.

Anil Mehta, 56
Cinematography, Class of 1984

Rajkummar Rao, Nishtha jain, dev Agarwal, gurvinder Singh, Anil Mehta, FTII, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Debate, FTII Institute, FTII Discussion, Entertainmnent news Anil Mehta

According to cinematographer Anil Mehta, there are two kinds of people in Bollywood, those who are from FTII and those who aren’t. “I am not being a snob when I says this; even Yash Chopra used to tell me that technicians from FTII bring another level of quality to their work,” says Mehta, who passed out of the cinematography course in 1984.

After he graduated, he joined the flourishing advertising scene. “Those were the heydays. Indian ads were finding a new idiom. The people at the helm were mostly FTII technicians, cinematographers and editors,” says Mehta.

Eventually, in 1994 Mehta got his first break in another FTII veteran Mani Kaul’s The Cloud Door. His career reads like a dream list for any Bollywood fan — Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Lagaan, Saathiya, Veer Zara, Wake Up Sid, Finding Fanny, Rockstar, Badlapur, and more. “But how many know of the brilliant documentaries that FTIIans make? How many celebrate the work of Nishtha Jain who has consistently made brilliant non fiction movies,” he asks.
The root cause of the FTII problem, Mehta feels, is the fact that it is under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. “When it was formed in 1960, FTII was clubbed under this ministry because it was meant to facilitate the growth of Doordarshan and All India Radio. However, it has a completely different function now. It has evolved into something else, and it should be treated as a separate entity,”
he says.

Gurvinder Singh, 41
Direction, Class of 2000

Rajkummar Rao, Nishtha jain, dev Agarwal, gurvinder Singh, Anil Mehta, FTII, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Debate, FTII Institute, FTII Discussion, Entertainmnent news Gurvinder Singh

After Gurvinder Singh completed the direction course from FTII in 2000, he hit the road, travelling extensively through Punjab for more than four years, documenting folk ballads and oral narratives. “That is the culture of FTII, we were encouraged to take risks,” says Singh whose first feature film in Punjabi, Andhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse) in 2011, premiered at Venice Film Festival. It was also screened at various international festivals including Rotterdam, Busan, London, and Munich.

At FTII, Singh and his contemporaries quickly realised that the onus of learning was on the student. “The teaching was of not a very high standard. Most of the permanent faculty were from the ’60s and early ’70s, and had not kept themselves abreast of contemporary filmmaking. We depended on visiting faculty. Mohan Agashe was the director of the institute, and owing to his efforts, we got theatre stalwarts such as Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Vijaya Mehta to conduct workshops. Filmmaker Saeed Mirza stayed for more than a month with us and we made a short film under his guidance. Sanjay Bhansali came to teach us song playback, Kundan Shah, for scriptwriting. The atmosphere at these workshops was always friendly and jovial, which often included drinking together in the evenings,” says Singh, who took his latest film, Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction) to Cannes this year.

Singh views Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as an assault on FTII. “It’s akin to picking up a roadside medicine tout to head an institution like AIIMS,” says Singh. But why has FTII not produced a Bollywood superstar or blockbuster director? “That was never even the intention behind starting the institute. Indian cinema is much bigger than Bollywood. FTII graduates are doing superlative work in documentary filmmaking. The documentary movement of the past decade was spearheaded mostly by them,” he says.

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