Scripting a turnaround

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By Pune's FTII, which made news for its behind-the-scene battles not so long ago, is exhibiting a new vitality today. Aarti Dua reports
  • Published 1.10.05
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(From top): Prof Satish Kumar; students lounge around in the campus; Tripurari Sharan, director, FTII; the part of the campus that was once Prabhat Studios; posters of Kshya Tra Ghya, Oadh and Dwijaa — much-acclaimed films from the FTII 2004-05 batch

It was a triumphant onscreen first for a film institute that has been mired in trouble for years. Last week, three films made by students from Pune’s Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) for their diploma course were screened at the prestigious New York Film School festival. One of the films, Girni arrived in New York after winning the Best Short Film award at the Karlovy Vari film festival.

That’s quite a turnaround for a film institute that has been making headlines for its behind-the-screens battles. But it’s not the only award-winning moments FTII has had in recent months. A few weeks ago, its 2004-05 class wrapped up seven National Awards in the non-feature film category. Umesh Kulkarni’s Girni and Pankaj Purandare’s Dwijaa together grabbed four. And Jasmine Kaur’s Saanjh and Amit Dutta’s Kshya Tra Ghya picked up a raft of others.

That’s not all. The 2004-05 batch ? yes, it’s the same one that went on the headline-making 45-day strike in 2000 ? also put together the slick Lensight: Diploma Films 2004-05, a festival of 16 short films in Mumbai last month. It was a far cry from the trade shows held in dingy Films Division auditoriums of the past. What’s more, the films are even being screened on Star One.

Says Tripurari Sharan, director, FTII, and the man responsible for its revitalisation, “As a film school, the quality of your work can be gauged only from the students’ work. The diploma film is their show reel, which is why we wanted to find ways to expose it.”

Importantly, the awards have reinforced FTII’s reputation as the country’s premier film school. Says Sharan, “The biggest challenge when I took over was to establish the relevance of FTII. For that, you have to do work that is recognised.”

It isn’t the first time, of course, that FTII’s students have been showered with praise at foreign festivals or won a clutch of national awards. What’s new, however, is the expansion in activities on the sprawling campus that once housed Prabhat Studios.

The institute is trying to put its troubles behind it and turn its lens on the hi-tech future. For a start, it has introduced new courses. This year, it’s added two courses in art direction and animation and computer graphics. Last year, a two-year acting course, created by Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani, and one-year screenplay writing course were introduced. “Cinema is a holistic discipline,” says Prof Satish Kumar, dean, films, and head of the sound engineering department, stressing how important the new courses are.

In terms of infrastructure too, FTII has kept pace with changing technology. For instance, a new Dolby studio is being installed currently.

This is a far cry from the situation five years ago. From 1996 to 2000, FTII was mired in student unrest and its very existence was questioned. In fact, the 2004-05 batch is the first class to graduate since 2000. Also, remarkably, there has been no strike in four years. Says Kulkarni, “The atmosphere is much better today.”

Agrees Shabana Azmi, alumni and FTII’s governing council member, “FTII is revitalised today and about time because it is an extremely important institution.”

To understand the change, let’s rewind a bit. The trouble began under Mohan Agashe’s directorship in 1996, when the three-year film diploma courses were reduced to two years and direction turned into a post-diploma course. The resulting student unrest didn’t subside even after these proposals were dropped. As a result, no admissions took place in 1998 and 1999.

Then, in 2000, the three-year integrated course was altered drastically. Under the new system, out of the 80 first-year students, only 48 would be promoted to the second, and 32 to the third year. The students protested as they felt this created unhealthy competition instead of the teamwork necessary for filmmaking.

Peace was brokered after Sushma Swaraj took over as information and broadcasting (I&B) minister, and the elimination system dropped. The revival, however, began in 2002 after Prem Matiyani, director, I&B ministry’s song and drama division, took additional charge as FTII director. “He restored the faith of the students and faculty that the institute would continue to function,” says Nimish Gaur, who helped organise the Lensight festival.

Apart from being more accessible, Matiyani initiated short-term TV courses. “The mood was grim. But once the government felt that things were moving, they supported us wholeheartedly,” he says.

One indication that things are looking up comes from the student numbers: as against 64 in 2000, there are over 200 today. “There is a lot of vitality today and highly qualified students are coming in. They’re bringing a certain discipline,” says Kumar. For instance, the sound course has six engineers.

(From top): Umesh Kulkarni with a poster of his award-winning film Girni; Avinash Roy and Jasmine Kaur and a poster of Saanjh (inset); students mill around at Lensight: Diploma Films 2004-05

The courses have also increased from four to 11. In fact, that’s one of the first things that Sharan did when he took over in 2003. “I have tried to enlarge the institute’s overall mix of activity. This is a public institution, there has to be some efficiency of the money spent,” he says.

In 2003, FTII introduced a one-year diploma in television with four specialisations. Till then, the TV department only conducted in-service programmes for Doordarshan. Says P K Khashu, dean, television, “We have received an excellent response.”

Then, in the last three years, FTII has invested Rs 8 crore in new equipment. This includes cameras and the latest editing machines. “Our infrastructure is among the best in the world for a film school,” says Sharan.

All these measures have resulted in a change of mood. Says the 2004-05 batch’s Nilanjan Datta, who is making a documentary on the relevance of government-funded film schools, “Earlier, the argument was why should the government in a country like India fund a film school. But now, more people are saying that in a budget of thousands of crores, Rs 17 crore [on FTII and the Satyajit Ray film school] is not much, and it is education.”

On campus, the mood changed because Matiyani and Sharan were extremely accessible. Another stimulus was the creation of a travel budget. “Earlier, the foreign was so terribly foreign. Now students and staff are better travelled, which gives them confidence,” says Prof Surendar Chawdhary, head of direction.

For instance, FTII recently encouraged some students to make a five-minute digital video (DV) on flying for a competition. “On the wings of this DV film, five students went to Berlin. These things energise the students to do better,” says Chawdhary.

More exchange programmes are also taking place. Last year, some FTII students and teachers visited a film institute in Kenya. Now Chawdhary is working on an exchange workshop with a French film school.

Travel is also making the students realise their blessings. Says Kulkarni, “Unlike schools where students spend their time looking for a producer, we don’t need to look for money to make films.”

Industry participation too is increasing. Last year, Oscar-winning editor and sound designer of The English Patient, Walter Murch, conducted a workshop at FTII. This year, five professional cameramen will teach the first year’s cinematography course. Says Kaur, “FTII is opening up and realising that marketing is important even as the industry is opening up to students.”

However, there are still internal problems. There’s the ever-present tension between the film and television students. Avinash Roy, who edited Saanjh, feels: “We are yet to see how effective the short-term courses are.”

Besides, there’s the age-old problem of courses stretching beyond three years. The 2004-05 class completed their diploma films by March 2005 instead of 2004. And the current third-year class is edgy as classes have been delayed by two months as the previous batch is still wrapping up its diploma films.

Then, there’s the faculty crunch with only 35 permanent teachers today as against 65 in 2000. Salary structures are also extremely low. Even the efforts to rope in industry experts should be more proactive, believes Azmi. “You get one brown envelope with a standard cyclostyled sheet saying you are invited to conduct a workshop. But that is not going to attract people,” she says.

Apart from using her goodwill with the industry, as governing council member, Azmi wants to convince the government to bring FTII under the HRD ministry and not the I&B ministry. “The film course should be recognised as a degree course and FTII treated like an educational institution,” she says.

Azmi insists that FTII shouldn’t lose sight of its goals. “The objective should be to promote excellence. The government is heavily subsidising every student at FTII so for those who are in a hurry, there are enough number of private institutions.”

Others like FTII alumni and Star India’s executive VP, content, Deepak Segal, believe that FTII needs to have a reality check. “TV is pariah in FTII but in the real world, you can make a big career here. It is better to be a topper in television than a nobody in films,” he says. In fact, he says the industry is willing to collaborate. For instance, Star India would like to conduct campus interviews and offer apprenticeships.

Even in films, director Sudhir Mishra feels: “Students should be told a few home truths. And they should learn how to go about raising funds.”

The cameras are rolling but can FTII keep the action going, especially after Sharan completes his term? As Datta says, “The students have to take up the challenge, then nobody will question the relevance of FTII.”

Photographs by Gajanan Dudhalkar