Television actor Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment to the post of chairperson of the governing council of the Film and Television Institute of India has already faced its first challenges. The institute’s student body has launched a protest against Chauhan’s selection, while at least two of the FTII alumni who were appointed to the council along with Chauhan will not be taking up their posts. From Friday morning, students began to boycott classes.

Students beat drums as they marched through the corridors of the institution, shouting slogans that evoked two pioneering Russian filmmakers. "Eisenstein, Pudovkin, we shall fight, we shall win," they can be heard chanting in footage posted on Facebook.

“We are not sure if we will be launching a strike yet,” said direction student Harishankar Nachimuthu, president of the students’ body. “We have nothing personal against Mr Chauhan, but we are protesting the selection process. If you are selecting somebody to head the governing council, it needs to be somebody who understands our issues. We are going through tremendous transition, especially in the field of digital technology, and tomorrow, if we need a syllabus change, we need somebody who will responsibly handle the change. We cannot take the selection process so lightly.”

Chauhan is best known for playing Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata epic, in BR Chopra’s popular television adaptation that ran between 1988 and 1990. The actor is also a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He replaces noted director Saeed Mirza, whose term ended in March 2014.

He said that he had not yet taken charge, and would "look into what needs to be done.”  Reacting to the claim that he didn’t have the credentials to run the country’s most prestigious filmmaking school, he said. “Who are these people to question my qualifications? The government must have found me capable of the post and therefore has appointed me.”

Cinematographer and director Santosh Sivan and filmmaker Jahnu Barua, both FTII graduates confirmed to that they have declined the government’s invitation to be on the Governing Council. Neither has received official word on their appointments from the government.

Mirza’s cellphone was out of range when called him. The institute’s director, DJ Narain, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Film school drama

The protest is the latest instance of student activism to be reported on the campus of India’s oldest, and by most accounts, finest, film school. Set up 1960 in in Pune on the grounds of the old Prabhat movie studio, the FTII has nurtured several eminent directors, actors, cinematographers, sound recordists and film editors. Protests and strikes have been a regular feature of campus life since the mid-1970s, when students of the acting course agitated against the fact that they were not always included in the diploma films made by the direction pupils.  “…It was the diploma films that were naturally considered as most important by all students as a show-reel to get into the industry, and acting students were not necessarily cast in those,” writes actor Naseeruddin Shah, who was among the agitators, in his 2014 memoir And Then One Day.

There have been several protests since then over the way the institute  is run, th relevance of its syllabus, the expertise of its faculty and the living conditions in its hostels. The institute has been shut down on occasion and suffered frequent interruptions to its academic schedule. One of the consequences of the agitations in recent years is that many final year students have been unable to finish their diploma films on time, and have therefore been unable to formally graduate.

One of the major strikes took place in 1996, and was over a rehaul in the academic structure. “The major courses were reduced to two years from three, and there were several new courses that didn’t have the matching faculty in place,” recalled filmmaker Surabhi Sharma, who was studying at the institute at the time.

There were further agitations by the end of the year, when Mahesh Bhatt, the chairperson of the governing council, suggested that diploma films be scrapped and that graduating students should instead assist established filmmakers on their productions. Actor Mohan Agashe’s tenure as institute director in those years also proved controversial, especially because he suggested sweeping changes to the syllabus that included doing away with specialisations and opting instead for a generic one-year course.

“It has never been taken seriously’

“The FTII has always been a troubled place because it has been treated as a stepchild and has never been taken seriously as an institute,” said FTII alumna and filmmaker Chandita Mukherjee. “The institute is one hundred per cent controlled by the I&B Ministry, and a lot of things have become run down. Every now and then, you have a flashpoint.”

Mukherjee was one of the members of a committee that was appointed in 2011 to study the problems facing the institute. The committee was born out of another set of student protests, this time against a government-appointed study conducted by the consultancy firm Hewitt Associates. Hewitt’s recommendations included the partially privatising FTII’s facilities and introducing short-term courses. Alumni and guest faculty members have argued for years that the distinguishing factor between the FTII and other filmmaking institutes is the creative space given to its students to pursue cinema as an art form, rather than a vocational skill.

Headed by former National Film Archive of India chairperson PK Nair, the committee’s members included Saeed Mirza, Jabeen Merchant, Hansa Thapliyal, Kundan Shah, Shaji Karun, Nachiket Patwardhan and Shama Zaidi.  The committee submitted an interim report in August 2011. While a full copy of the report has been sent to the Ministry, its details have not yet been made public.

“Generally speaking, there were suggestions in the interim report for curricular change, building new structures to accommodate more students, expanding the courses, and introducing new specialisations, especially because of the advent of new media,” Mukherjee said.

According to another member of the committee, who wished to stay anonymous, the final report suggests a radial overhaul of the administrative structure, including changing the course design and the manner in which people are hired, as well as greater autonomy from the I&B Ministry.

Better faculty

Choosing a better faculty is easier said than done, said Jabeen Merchant, an editor trained at the FTII and a member of the Nair committee. “It is very difficult to find full-time faculty that is willing to take up a government job and live in Pune,” said Merchant, who has been a guest lecturer at FTII. “You end up with a constant shortage and the people who are working there full-time might not be the best you need for a particular course. There are changes in filmmaking practices happening every two years, and you need to be on top of things. But the faculty too has no scope for refresher courses or learning anything new themselves.”

Despite perceptions to the contrary, the film school is still one of the best-equipped in the country, said Dharam Gulati, a cinematographer and managing committee member of the alumni association GRAFTII. Strikes were also a feature of the four years he spent at the FTII between 1980 and 1984. At that time, the government wanted to cut down the costs of making diploma films, so it attempted to club together specialisations and cut down on the number of batches. “We went on strike for about a week, and all of us – we were 20 in all – managed to make our diploma films,” said Gulati, who has served on several FTII committees in recent years.

The institute may be home to students whose assignments have been delayed beyond reasonable deadlines, but it is has many advantages over other institutes, Gulati said. “The equipment is up to date, the best, in fact,” he said. “The institute has huge studios because it used to be the Prabhat film company earlier, and no other film school gives you this luxury. The problems are with administration and faculty. Technology is changing so fast that you need to update the syllabus and the curriculum, but this takes time.”