Iss debate mein ghusne se koi bhi bewakoof hi lagega (only a fool would engage in this debate).” Prateek Vats, 35, has a note of exasperation in his voice when he talks about the ongoing protests by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students over the fee hike proposed by the university authorities. For him, the debate over equitable education is a non-starter: Rights are not bargained for.
Vats, who graduated in direction in 2012 from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and generations of filmmakers before him have benefitted from the mentorship of the country’s premier public film school that allowed them to pursue their dreams. The Mumbai-based director’s debut feature-length fiction film, Eeb Allay Ooo! won the top prize at Mumbai Academy of Moving Image festival last month and was the opening film at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) held earlier this month.
Long before JNU became part of the national conversation for being the breeding ground of the “tukde tukde gang”, Vats — as part of the group that protested the central government’s appointment of the new FTII chairman in 2015 — had returned the national award he won for Kal, 15 August, Dukaan Band Rahegi (2010), a short film he made in his second year at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.
In 2015, FTII became a symptom of the high-handedness of the then year-old central government when it tried to foist actor Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s director on a reluctant student body. Kislay (who goes by his first name), 31, who graduated from FTII that year after training as an editor, was a part of the student protest. Then, as now, the conversation quickly veered off to how ungrateful students, subsidised by taxpayer money, were making unreasonable, elitist demands. Outraged TV news anchors, among many others, asked: With Bollywood around, why are taxpayers subsidising students to make films?
The Delhi-based Kislay, whose debut feature film Aise Hee (Just Like That), was screened at DIFF, has an answer to it. Till he went to FTII, Kislay says, “My horizon was limited to Bollywood, by and large”. Once he began to study cinema, he became open to the possibilities of storytelling. At FTII, he found out that there was much more to films, both in theory and practice — from the nuances of the craft to the more difficult question of how to tell stories. “Generations of students from across the country have come to FTII and gone back to regional cinema and enriched it,” Kislay says, “I wanted to be one of them”.
In Aise Hee, it is clear that it is resonance, not advertising-demographic-market research-driven consonance, that the film achieves with a diverse audience at DIFF. In the film, shot earlier this year, Mrs Sharma, recently widowed, begins to live her life, even find herself, through small acts of independence. That these little freedoms — eating an ice cream alone, befriending a young woman who works at a beauty parlour, learning embroidery from a Muslim tailor — could be subversive does not seem to occur to her. All the while, as Mrs Sharma’s rebellion unfolds, the noise in the background, the sound design, tells us that Allahabad is turning into Prayagraj. This change, marked in the subtext of the everyday violence in the Hindu Rashtra and the Hindu family, is portrayed with empathy. But that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. The film manages, through Mrs Sharma and her family, to navigate gender, caste and religion. And the ingrained bigotries that mask as morality.
Politics, for Kislay, is not an act of othering but rather one of empathy. “The friends I grew up with in Allahabad, many of them seemed sympathetic towards the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). These are not bad people. In fact, there is an innocence and goodness about them. It is through humanity and complexity that I wanted to explore the cultural changes in my city. I wanted my friends to be able to see themselves in my first film,” he says. Kislay left Allahabad, where he studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya, for his undergraduate studies at Kirori Mal College in Delhi University. “Since 2014,” he says, “we have only been obsessed with the state — and those for and against the current ideology ruling at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. We seem to see the way society has changed only through the prism of politics, of who is sanghi and who is not. Magar asli problem toh culture mein hai (the real problem lies in culture). It is sometimes the worst in us that is coming out. And cinema can capture that.”
“Aadmi bandar hai (the man is monkey),” remarks a human monkey-chaser for Lutyens’ Delhi in Eeb Allay Ooo!. Unlike Kislay, Vats’s film’s visual canvas is broad — the seat of India’s political power, the vastness of the capital, the sheer dinginess and precariousness of those who work there. But the monkeys are not a metaphor. “Too much of our popular culture is about looking away. We don’t need metaphors. The monkeys are a fact, as is contract work. There is more than enough in that.” What he doesn’t say is that the film is also about the times we live in, where the sacredness of the animal gives it more dignity, perhaps, than humans. Vats’s film part-satire, part-tragedy, looks at male entitlement through the least entitled male — a contract worker who chases away the very simians he is afraid of.
There was a time, a few decades ago, when both the films would, perhaps, have been produced by the National Film Development Corporation Ltd (NFDC). After all, so much of what was “alternative” cinema was aided by state-funding. And that world spoke to the mainstream, enriching the latter. “In the digital age, it’s cheaper in some ways to make a film. An NFDC could actually produce four-five films for the cost of one,” says Kislay.
In the absence of that support, FTII and the networks built there seem to be the refuge for former students. Both films have the same producer (Shwetaabh Singh), cinematographer (Saumyananda Sahi) and editor (Tanushree Das Sahi). All of them are from FTII. “We are invested in each other’s work, and we can actually think like a fraternity,” says Vats.
Sahi recalls how almost the entire team that made the films came together at FTII, and how their bond was cemented in 2015 on the sidelines of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). “That year, IFFI had boycotted films from FTII, and there was something of a parallel festival. We were all part of that, and even made a short film about it.”
“Filmmaking is a risky and expensive affair,” says Sahi. “Without something like an NFDC supporting independent cinema, and the mainstream producers unwilling to take a gamble, it is the camaraderie of the FTII fraternity that made both films possible.” This sense of fraternity extends beyond just those who studied together. For Eeb Allay Ooo!, for example, they managed to get the equipment for a heavily discounted rate because the supplier was an almunus.
Both the directors, despite their different ways of working, appear to be somewhat sceptical of the notion that the market is the only logic that should govern the production of culture. “If being ‘aspirational’ is the only measure, then we will end up excluding so much of our reality,” says Vats.
Since the 2015 protests, much has changed at FTII. Now, short courses have been introduced which, says Vats, are “money-making tools”. “Cinema isn’t about providing the right answer, it’s about asking the right questions. There was a time when filmmakers were also something like national conscience keepers,” says Vats. It was their training that made that possible.
The logic behind subsidising education, and culture, is that it creates an inclusive environment and produces individuals capable of critical thinking. “If the government can’t give us education and healthcare, what’s the point?” Vats’s question has only one answer. Pretending otherwise means that iss debate mein ghusne se koi bhi bewakoof hi lagega.
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