Fighting the mediocrity contagion

Print edition : September 18, 2015

In Pune on August 19, police escort five FTII students to court following their arrest in a late night swoop on the campus. Photo: PTI

FTII students protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on August 3. Photo: PTI

THE man the students and faculty and alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and filmmakers or artists or technicians of any consequence in the industry, do not want as the chairman of that premier institution must feel at once very nonplussed, very wronged, and very important. What, he wonders, is the brouhaha about? It is only fair, he feels, that he should be judged not by what he has been and done as an actor (which, even he seems to admit, does not add up to much), but by what he is going to be, and do, as the chair. Do not confuse, he pleads, his reel life with his real life. He holds out the prospect that his real life as chairman will get him really going and see him really performing. The students, however, are not enamoured of being cast as the guinea pigs in this unlikely script for the gentleman’s self realisation.

He can also, understandably, feel discriminated against, in that he has been singled out for such opprobrium. After all, there are many universities whose Vice-Chancellors have no business to be there if their qualifications, track record and eminence in the field, rather than their capacity for sucking up, or being elastically pliant, to this or that party in power, were the criteria. But then, again, equity is not exactly a great defence for mediocrity.

The man must, though, feel unduly important at this juncture. Who, after all, had heard of Gajendra Chauhan before he was picked as the chairman-designate of FTII by this government? Now, everyone, at least in the enlightened and concerned sections of the film fraternity, knows the name. That in itself must count as an achievement for one who comes to the job with a more or less clean slate in terms of accomplishments.

The simple and honourable thing for the man to do, once he felt the strong vibes of rejection coming his way, would have been to make himself unavailable for the job. He would have done himself and everyone else a favour, and saved the campus a strike as prolonged and painful as this. But then, maybe, as a foot soldier of the party in power which seems hell bent on pitchforking him up there into the chair, he does not have the liberty to do so. So we are treated to the unseemly sight on television of his vapid and vain attempt at self-justification and self-promotion of his candidature, an effort too hopelessly naive to count even as temerity or immodesty.

The strike, even if it is reductively showcased as such, is more than about Chauhan and the FTII chair. It is legitimate outrage over yet another instance of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) systematic and stunting saffronisation of key cultural and academic institutions by foisting such middling characters at their helm. It is part of the fight already raging in our minds against a mediocrity contagion which threatens the administration of academics and culture. It is, further, about the time-tested FTII way of thinking, about the FTII state of being. It is about the threat to its progressive —even its libertine or bohemian, without any stigma attached to these traits—campus culture. It is about rebelliousness with or without a cause, which is not so much an aberration as constitutive of the ethic and aesthetic of the typical FTII-ian. Strikes are a common occurrence here also because they symbolise the questioning, the challenging, the restless mind. It can be easy, but misleading, to value judge them in terms other than of a creative frisson that bursts out remonstratively every once in a while. They are endemic in FTII and, peculiarly, nourish heterodoxy on the campus even as they disrupt formal curricular work. It is as if the students have internalised Jacques Derrida’s exhortation that “a certain madness must watch over thinking”.

A foreign visitor to FTII in the early 1970s, Dr. Ernest D. Rose, Professor of Communications at Temple University, recalls a strike when Jagat Murari was Principal. At issue then was what many students saw as undue importance given to acting in the curriculum. In this early phase, the institute defined itself in opposition to commercial Bollywood where acting and stardom were at a premium, but which were considered infra dig by the students inspired by the cause of the new wave and the parallel cinema movement. When it looked like Murari was not about to do anything to remedy this perceived distortion in the programme, the students demanded his removal. “Dozens of students,” Prof. Rose recounts, “moved their beds out of their hostels and lined both sides of the main street leading from the gate to Murari’s office. The words ‘Jagat must go’ were printed in huge letters on the roof of the building. For weeks, Jagat Murari calmly drove the full length of that gauntlet each morning and each evening to and from work. Finally, more in a gesture of mercy than displeasure, the government reassigned Murari to Delhi, and the position of Principal has remained vacant ever since. While acting remains important, a more delicate balance has been struck between performing and other aspects of production.”

Although nowhere of that vintage, Ernest Rose’s description of what he saw at FTII during his visit there in 1973 sounds every bit as quaint as the account of a Francois Bernier or a Jean-Baptiste Tavernier about 17th century Mughal India. He exults about the place. “There are few, if any, like it in the world”, he says and adds, “it is clearly superior to anything within a 3,000-mile radius”. He evokes the learning and working atmosphere in exciting and vivid terms. The lighting equipment is of the “incandescent” type and “mounted on a sturdy semi-portable wood structure rather than a conventional tripod or dolly”. There is the “superb library” which in the space of a decade (the institute was launched in 1961) has become an “invaluable reference and research centre with 10,700 volumes”.

In one bungalow in the 21 acre complex that was once the Prabhat film studio, “history and criticism professor Satish Bahadur speculates with three of his students on the possible influence of Satyajit Ray’s films on new works by young cineastes in Rio de Janeiro and in West Africa”. Moving on and across the road, the indefatigable P.K. Nair is diligently and systematically putting together the trove of the National Film Archive. Rose writes in awed tones about the Assistant Professor of Music, Bhaskar Chandavarkar, “patiently working with seven professional musicians who fondle exotic eastern instruments as they record a new score for a picture nearing completion. A former student of Ravi Shankar, and a master composer, arranger, performer and conductor in his own right, he regularly turns out about 40 original scores each year for the student productions in addition to teaching performance and composition. Those who are aware of the integral structure of ethnic music in the cinema tradition of India can understand why the Poona school is probably the only film training institution in the world where a full-time resident music-composer has a place of such importance on the faculty.”

The sense of the place is not complete, though, without noting from the corner of one’s eye the hapless Vice Principal, C.V. Gopal, engaged in “mediating disputes between the students and the faculty”. Rose seems to marvel in equal measure at the institute’s solid accomplishments and its robust disputatious distractions. In a place like this, of freewheeling imagination, of unleashed creativity, students’ agitations and strikes become an organic part of the learning or (equally important) unlearning process, of artistic self-assertion and self-radicalisation. They are not to be frowned upon as immoral or anti-social acts that presage dystopia. The creative thinking fostered here would naturally be different, not normative, and several steps ahead of what is consensually or legally seen as right or wrong or moral in society.

This is not to romanticise the striking FTII-ian or to suggest that students here are, or can be allowed to be, a law unto themselves. But there is a strong case for latitude—far more sophisticated, sensible and sensitive than has been in evidence thus far in the response to the current strike—in handling discontent in the country’s preeminent film school. After all, it is the churning on the campus as much as structured pedagogy that has yielded the distillate work of a Ritwik Ghatak, a Kumar Shahani, a Mani Kaul, a John Abraham, an Adoor Gopalakrishnan, or numerous others who have pushed the frontiers of Indian cinema further. It does not do to throw the rule book at free spirits like them. It does not do for the director to get the police into the campus and arrest students just because they gheraoed him.

Worse than such misplaced intimidatory tactics is the soul-killing infliction of mediocrity in the governance of the institute by nominating the likes of Chauhan to the chair, or similar nondescripts as members of the FTII society. Even as it feeds into both the art and the commercial cinema, FTII has, by its very institutional values forged over the decades, played the difficult role of a critical conscience keeper of the medium, countering the Gresham’s law tendency of the bad to drive the good out of circulation. To administratively dumb the institution down would be to consign what is left of good cinema to the mindlessness of the rest.

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