Many years ago, I walked through the gates of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, a young student, uncertain and unsure, and emerged a completely transformed individual. From the entrance interview, where filmmaker Mrinal Sen sat in front of me asking questions, to bumping into future director John Abraham at a tea shop to watching Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers at the Main Theatre, those first three days were almost a dream. One felt almost as if one could never measure up to the “gravitas“ of the institute.

But, after the usual bouts of ragging, we settled down and the world of cinema unfolded before us – film appreciation classes with Satish Bahadur, lighting with Bhanumurthy Alur, learning editing under the department assistant Kakaji’s watchful gaze. Not only did cinema bring us the world, but with students from all parts of the country, India itself unfolded. For the first time I had classmates from Kashmir and Bengal.

The tradition of treating students as adults was new to me. Educational institutions today do not believe that it is a healthy learning environment to allow a student to learn on his or her own terms. The film institute was fashioned for students to be able to spread their wings. Like all students, we never appreciated this while we were there, it is in retrospect that one realises the importance of this philosophy of education.

The glory days

Students were forever at odds with the establishment. The relationship was volatile, but with a certain amount of respect and equality on both sides. There are memories of shouting at RK Laxman, then a board member, against the attempted censorship of a gay-themed diploma film, arguing endlessly with institute director NVK Murthy about issues ranging from hostel timings to exercise norms, almost going on strike demanding the rollback of assessment rules and Governing Council chairperson Shyam Benegal throwing up his hands late at night and saying, “Do what you all want!”

As students, we did an endless number of exercises, working painstakingly on celluloid. Indiscipline in lifestyle was made up for in the discipline of learning. Watching films was sacrosanct, as was attending workshops with the greats of cinema from all over the world. I remember the year Krzysztof Zanussi was in Pune, and we worked day and night on his sets, but on the other hand were always lazy to attend the 9 am class.

The film institute was a one-of-a-kind institution in those days. We were nurtured, and we left it reluctantly for the big bad world, where cinema was not considered an acceptable profession. Most of us survived and with pride can claim to have contributed to Indian cinema. Along with that, ties to the alma mater have continued. Most ex-students have gone back to either teach or visit.

The slow atrophy

Going back over the years, one saw changes that were inevitable. But today the institution is a ghost of its former self. Successive governments have been unable to articulate the need for the institute to continue, the dynamics of the profession itself have changed, film schools have sprung up all over the country, and technology has become available to everybody. But there has been no one within this premiere institute with an ear to the ground. Mantras such as short-term courses and vocational studies have been floated, but the bigger picture has been lost.

Today as the students demand that their voices be heard, we know the malaise runs very deep. The film institute needs urgent attention. From overcrowding to the syllabus, from faculty to students and the management, from art to commerce – everything needs to be re-examined. Cosmetic changes will not work. A passion and commitment to serious cinema and pedagogical practice are required. The selection processes needs to be made transparent and rigorous, students need to be made aware of their responsibilities, and the government needs to believe that this institute needs to survive.

Apart from being an institution for nation-building, the film institute has to be viewed as an essential contributor to the cultural discourse in today’s India and in the world. The FTII is an international agency, and that recognition and importance must be granted to it not only in letter but in deed.

Bina Paul Venugopal, a graduate of the 1983 batch, is an editor whose credits include Amma Ariyan, In Othello and Munnariyippu. Previously the Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of India Kerala, she is the director of the LV Prasad Film and TV Academy in Thiruvananthapuram.