Time was when the country’s premier film training school, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), was in news for all the right reasons, from the best experimental cinema coming out of its classrooms to its alumni making an impact internationally. Today the beleaguered Institute is making headlines not just for all the wrong reasons, but also because of the several questions surrounding it.
A few days ago the BJP led government, which may or may not win award for promoting free speech, reviewed through the Niti Ayog and the Prime Minister’s Office, as many as 114 autonomous institutes as part of the first phase of the planned review of 679 institutions. Of the 114 they scanned, nearly a third have been selected for reduction, reorganisation or corporatization.
That the FTII is way up on the list is hardly surprising to those who have been following the hapless school’s vicissitudes over the past couple of years, centering on the government’s audacious attempts at imposing control and a desperate struggle by its students to retain their independence.
The worst, of course, was the strike in 2015 which lasted140 days and defied all logic and large-heartedness that a government must employ when it comes to dealing with students. The students stance was clear, they did not want the new chairman of the governing council as they deemed him unfit for the post. The government’s position, on the other hand, was shrouded in mystery; it dug in its heels and refused to budge, leaving everyone nonplussed at its obstinacy.
Many shouted out the words – privatisation, corporatization, saffronization. Arundhati Roy talked about the strike in her book, `The End of Imagination’. “The students wanted to know why a chairman with no qualification for the job could be foisted on them. They demanded that Chauhan be removed from the post. Their real fear was that by stacking the governing council with their cohorts, the government was setting up a coup, preparing (for the nth time) to privatise the FTII and turn it into yet another institution meant for the rich and privileged,” she wrote.
As it turned out, their fears weren’t off the mark.
Debates have begun to rage on what privatisation means for FTII, how it will slow down the entry of raw talent from the country’s peripheries, how cinema, as well as FTII graduates, will become more amenable to accepted norms rather than allow the seed of rebellion flower into free thought.
My question is, Why can’t the government leave alone an institute that has not only unexpectedly served its purpose but which has pushed the boundaries and become a hotbed of international appreciation and acclaim? Why try and fix something that does ain’t broke, as the Americans would say?
Certainly, what needs fixing is the infrastructure, restoration and preservation of some of FTII’s heritage structures, including the iconic Prabhat Museum, the thought-through creation of a more structured syllabus and time table which doesn’t allow so many backlogs, the division of labour between a bureaucrat and a film industry person at the top (since that debate remains inconclusive) and a talented, committed and well-paid faculty that is more involved in cinema than petty politics.
What does not need fixing at FTII is its free spirit, it’s out-of-the-box thinking, its rebellious streak or the maverick lifestyle of its denizens. This is what has given the school its identity, its air of unbridled creativity. The likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Naseeeruddin Shah, Girish Kasarvalli or Resul Pookutty could only be Made in FTII. Diploma films made by its students are today creating more waves at international film festivals than those from the industry.
You don’t muzzle an institution like this. In fact, you grant it greater autonomy to iron out the creases and repair what is wrong, not destroy what it’s been doing right all these years.
With privatisation, though, the goals are set to change. These include commercial sense and playing to the gallery (read government). The wheels have already been set in motion.
Quick short courses with a substantial fee have been rolled out, attempts are being made to revise tuition expenses which is bound to make the place unaffordable for many and there are reports that FTII students will have to get the approval from the authorities for films they want to screen and watch in the institute’s theatre.
Big Brother is definitely watching. But it seems to have missed the big picture.