Without a script

Print edition : April 28, 2001

A controversy over the course structure and the syllabi sparks a fresh round of trouble in the FTII, Pune.

FOR over a decade now, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the country's premier film education centre, has been in turmoil.

Located on 8.4 hectares of land in the heart of Pune, the Institute has built a reputation for itself as one of the best film schools in the world. Over 100 resident students are provided access to top-of-the-line equipment and taught the art of film-making by a top-class faculty and a stream of personalities from the film industry, Indian and international. Students work in surroundings that have a history (the institute stands on the Prabhat Studios grounds), use Asia's largest indoor shooting set (a legacy of Prabhat), and have access to one of the best film archives in the world. The campus, known for its "lively" atmosphere once, is not even a shadow of its former self now. Students do gather around the "wisdom tree", the FTII's best-known landmark, but the discussions are more about their next letter of protest to the Director than about the films of the masters.

On the FTII campus, with the figure of a dancer covered in black plastic following a dispute between the management, which wants to remove it, and the students who demand that it be retained.-SANDESH BHANDARE

Since its founding in 1961 the FTII has developed a tradition of giving students a say in what they may learn. However, the atmosphere of positive interaction gradually deteriorated, leading to the current standoff between the students and the management. At the heart of the matter is the drastic restructuring of the course and the change in course content recommended and ratified by two decision-making bodies - the Academic Council and the Governing Council. The first batch of students for the revised course was admitted in February 2000. In the normal course they should have completed the first year in December 2000. This did not happen because the students went on strike in September protesting against the course structure. The strike lasted 45 days.

The first attempt to change the syllabus was made in 1996. The specialisations of Direction, Motion Picture Photography and Sound Recording and Sound Engineering were of three years' duration, and Editing, two years'. The first year was common to all courses. The revised syllabus reduced the duration of all specialisations to two years and introduced a variety of new courses - a post-diploma course in Direction, which was open to diploma holders from the FTII; diploma courses in Art Direction and Production Management for film and television; and a short-term course (one semester) in Acting for film and television. The rationale behind these changes, which were designed and introduced by the then Chairman of the FTII, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, was to make the Institute more contemporary. The duration and course content were tightened with a view to streamlining the course, eliminating unnecessary academic inputs and shortening the time allotted for the course-end project. These changes, it was said, would not only spur the students on but enable them to start their careers earlier than they would otherwise have.

The new syllabus was introduced in January 1996. In April that year, the students went on strike demanding a reversion to the three-year syllabus. They argued that the condensing and diluting of the course was not conducive to the study of the art of cinema. They were supported by the teachers.

The Academic Council met and appointed a committee to review the syllabus. The Review Committee included experts from outside the FTII, as suggested by the students. The committee, along with the faculty, worked out an agenda to go into the final course content of the old as well as the new syllabus. It submitted its report to the Academic Council in September 1996. (In the meantime, the students went on strike twice.) Along with the report the faculty members submitted a letter saying that they had not been actively involved in the committee's deliberations. In response, the Academic Council decided that the proposals should be examined by the faculty along with experts who were not FTII alumni. The terms for their discussion included the duration of the course, the infrastructure, the faculty, the budget and the coordination of course programmes. But this process of examining the Review Committee's report was affected by the inability of the experts to attend the meetings and the professional commitments of the faculty at the end of the academic year. In December 1997, the Council decided to give the faculty four more months to examine the report of the Review Committee.

In April 1999, the faculty placed its recommendations before the Council and they were accepted for implementation. It was expected that the new academic programme would start soon since it was designed by department heads and senior professors. This committee comprised 12 teachers and the Dean of Television, and the Deputy Director of Academics was its convener.

The final decision was to accommodate between 60 and 80 students in the basic course in film and television. At the end of the year, each student's work would be assessed and only those who passed would be allowed to proceed to the next year for specialisation in Direction, Audiography, Cinematography or Editing. After the year-end assessment, only 48 students would be allowed to specialise, that is, 12 students in each specialisation. At the end of the first year of specialisation, only 32 students would enter the final year, that is, eight students in each specialisation. The Council saw this as an acceptable compromise since it ultimately resulted in a "pyramidal structure enriching the earlier syllabus in every respect with points of entry and exit at the end of each course of one year." The tightly knit and well-integrated course made each year's education complete in itself, it said. For instance, those who successfully completed the basic course could begin their careers even if they did not qualify for the diploma course in any specialisation. They could apply for direct entry into the diploma course at a later stage.

The new syllabus was introduced after apprising the faculty of the developments at each stage up to its unanimous approval by the Academic Council and the Governing Council. It was decided to implement the syllabus for the academic year starting in February 2000.

In September 2000, the students went on strike protesting against the new course structure and they were supported by the faculty. They objected to the new course structure on a number of grounds. First, they questioned the practice of year-end assessment, which, they said, would lead to unfair "elimination" on the basis of "subjective ratings" by the faculty. Their demand was that at the end of the basic course, all 80 students should be allowed to continue their studies if they chose to. The new system would allow only 48 of them to proceed to the diploma level.

Students on strike in September 2000.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Abhijit Majumdar, general secretary of the FTII Students Association, says: "Film is an artistic medium and people have different points of view and different types of creativities. It is unfair to have fixed minds judging us constantly."

Students say that the prospect of failing at the end of the year forces them to toe the conventional line and prevents them from exploring creative options. One constructive suggestion is to introduce stringent criteria for admission and permit those admitted to complete the three-year course. The management is willing to consider this but the problem lies in identifying what the criteria should be.

The management says that the first year gives the students a sound grounding in the basics of film-making and enables them to enter the job market. But Majumdar says: "Even the Director has said that at the end of the first year all we will be qualified to do is make creative marriage videos."

One argument against the protesting students is that they were aware of the course structure when they opted to join the course. Majumdar says: "We were aware of this through the prospectus but we really had no other alternative since the FTII is the best in India to study film-making. We had waited so long for admissions to begin again that we didn't really give this a thought."

But there is a different viewpoint. Oindrilla Hazra, one of the 15 students who did not join the strike, says: "I was fully aware of the practice of year-end assessment when I joined the course." She resigned as the general secretary of the students association when the strike began. "What's wrong with such assessment? It exists everywhere, so why not here? This is a professional course and we're students. I accept the fact that I'm still learning and I'm being taught by people who know more than I," she says.

Majumdar contests this argument by saying that the faculty members are "also trapped into the system of giving grades and numbers. This system of constantly marking students was not something that was well received by the faculty. After some time they could feel that it is difficult to mark people. The earlier system also had marking but the difference is that it was not related to your continuing studies. This is a post-graduate course. We know what we are doing here. There are many students here who have had experience in the field (the average age is 26). We come here to develop our understanding of the film language."

Majumdar does not buy the argument that reducing the number of students is a means to increase the competence of FTII diploma holders. "Whose standards are we being judged by? The Mumbai film industry's? People like Mani Kaul have not made a single film in the Mumbai industry but he is known the world over. Probably he would not have passed in this structure at the FTII," he says.

According to Majum-dar, the new system was devised "as a means to keep students under control and doctor our thoughts. If you know there is the probability of being chucked out at the end of an year you will not step out of line. You will not ask questions. So it's not competence levels they are interested in - they just want to control students.

Dr. Mohan Agashe, Director, FTII.-SANDESH BHANDARE

Suresh Chabria, Professor of Film Appreciation, says: "We tried the course for seven months and found that it was not working. It didn't pass the holy FTII test of student acceptance."

Responding to this comment, Mehboob Khan, Director, Academics, says: "When the faculty members devise a course they should know what is expected of them. No one (in the faculty) voiced any kind of reservation (at the start of the course). "

He says: "The restructuring of the Review Committee of 1996 was unanimously appreciated and approved by both the Councils in 1999. There was not a single note of dissent and it was implemented in February 2000."

Explaining the resistance to change among some faculty members, Chabria says: "Our problems have largely to do with having a few such people. No one wants to opt for teaching now. The ones that do enter the profession sometimes do so since they have no other choice. Those already in the profession for many years have peaked... everyone plateaus off and there is nothing offered to refresh you. There is no fresh blood - these are big issues." The shortage of teachers is a serious problem in the FTII. Almost half the posts are vacant.

The students demand the resignation of Mohan Agashe, the Director of the Institute. "This Director has to go," says Rajesh Shera, president of the FTII Students Association.

Agashe says, in response: "If changing the Director is the solution then things should have improved years ago. Ministers and Secretaries come and go. So do Directors and Chairmen. So do students. Who are the only constants? The faculty. They are the ones who never change. For six years they have sabotaged every attempt to change. In the last five years, they have changed their stand four times. The syllabus is not the problem. The problem is in implementing the syllabus and the overall structure of the course. They have been unable to complete courses on schedule. So we let the faculty decide the duration and the course content. They presented us with the revised course which we agreed to but they couldn't even keep to that. Then, when the new Chairman was appointed in November the faculty promptly gave him a letter saying they could not assure him of running and completing the course. If they cannot do this who can? The FTII has become a rehabilitation centre (for the faculty) and that's where the main problem lies."

THE FTII is an autonomous institution and is dependent on the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for funding. The general feeling on the campus is that the Centre does not take film-making seriously. Recently the fees were hiked, and this was resisted by the students. Commenting on this, Mahesh Bhatt, film-maker and former Director of the FTII, says: "First subsidies are given for higher education in a luxury (subject) like film-making, then the Institute gives itself airs about being a glorified institution producing great 'cinema'. Then when the fees are hiked a bit students protest... it is shameful that in a country where primary schools don't have blackboards, students are demanding subsidies for higher education. All these IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) and even the FTII - their subsidies should be cracked down upon."

According to Agashe, the only way out of the recurring problems in the FTII is for the government to formulate a policy - "It should clearly state what kind of training it expects from an institute like this." A senior faculty member said: "The interest taken by the Ministry so far has been minimal. When the students go on strike the easy way out is taken - either the demands are met or the Director is changed or a new Chairman appointed. Essentially the government swings the populist way. What do babus know about film education? It's actually unfair to expect anything from them. The real culprit is the government, which doesn't really care for film education since it is not 'useful'."

According to Bhatt, the Finance Commission has recommended the closure of the FTII. While opposing such a drastic step, Bhatt does say that "if the attitudes to film and film-making do not change then the Institute will be digging its own grave. The greatest tragedy is the government turning a blind eye... its refusal to take a stand and support change."

Students of the FTII have prided themselves on making movies that are not mainstream or commercial. Commenting on this, Dr. John Carrol of the Australian Film Television and Radio School, a visiting Professor at the FTII, said: "The students see their role as that of cultural guardians and want the Institute to promote film on the basis of aesthetic value and social content... this is elitist in that it presupposes that the students 'know' what the audience should be shown in the cinemas and what is 'good for them' in terms of content. This modernistic perspective is now out of date in the film world, as it has been for much longer in the field of literature and art."

Echoing this view, Bhatt says: "I found the FTII to be shackled to a mindset that was outdated and worn out." Going one step further, he adds: "The FTII was created on the presumption that mainstream cinema was not good enough. According to the FTII attitude, European cinema is good, Hollywood and Bollywood are trash... even though the audiences say otherwise. The students need to get rid of their isolationist, arrogant world-view."

This is the larger picture that has to be looked at when the future of the Institute is discussed. Bhatt and many others feel that the FTII mindset is a "denial of the market realities", but they also agree that a sound basis in world cinema is essential in the course.

In view of the strike, the government appointed a committee in December 2000 to take another look at the course structure and the syllabus. The committee included a faculty member, a student representative and FTII alumni. The report of the committee, which was placed before the Academic Council in January, recommended a reversion to the three-year course. This recommendation was accepted, which amounted to the Academic Council rejecting a report that it had ratified earlier. The faculty members who had formulated a new course now did not contest the Academic Council's decision to revert to the three-year course.

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