There’s a popular belief about the Film and Television Institute of India, that it is constantly beset by students going on strike. It’s impossible to deny this. At a recent meeting of alumni in Mumbai, senior filmmaker and academician Arunaraje Patil told us that she was part of the first batch that went on strike, in 1968. Almost everyone who has passed out since carries a similar memory of “their strike”.

People sympathising with Gajendra Chauhan, the newly appointed FTII chairman, might feel better knowing that no party or person has been spared over the years – luminaries like Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad and Adoor Gopalakrishnan as well as several IAS officers appointed to run the institute carry memories of agitations as strong as past students do, although probably less happy.

My own time on campus, from 1993 to 1995, was a little window of calm. One incident caused the entire student body to protest by spending a chilly night camped under the near-mythic Wisdom Tree in the heart of the campus and there was the day that visiting Doordarshan trainees had a loud sit-in outside the Dean’s office. But these were entertaining diversions compared to the desperate hunger strike and near shutdown of the institute just a year after I graduated.

Undoubtedly, the notion about strikes isn’t wrong. What I disagree with is the related assumption that since FTII’s students are the ones striking, they are the ones to blame. This, to me, is illogical.

What's behind the strikes?

New students get admitted every year. They come from all over the country and outside, from hill tribes and fishing villages, metropolises and small towns, rich kids educated at Doon School and St. Stephen’s as well as working-class girls and boys who can only afford subsidised government institutions. How could so many different kinds of people over so many years all turn out to be wilful perpetrators of strikes? Instead of accusing them, doesn’t it make more sense to look at the one thing that remains constant across time, the institution itself?

Like all students who join film schools anywhere in the world, people come to FTII as the first step in making a career for themselves. They look at former students who are national icons, counted among the top technicians, directors and actors in the film industry, heading major television networks, running prestigious educational institutions, winning awards and being feted the world over – and they aspire to those achievements themselves. If they end up in a situation that makes them go on strike instead of focusing on these goals, shouldn’t they be considered the victims?

Around 1997, then FTII Director Dr Mohan Agashe thought up a way to end the strikes once and for all. His medical man’s mind reasoned that striking was like a virus transmitted from one batch to the next. The way to eliminate it, then, was through quarantine. He decided to freeze new admissions until every last student had graduated and left the campus for good. Two years into this freeze, the much-depleted students’ association appealed to the Bombay High Court. They won their case, arguing that the FTII was wasting government resources by refusing to take students. A new batch was admitted in February 2000 and by September went on strike protesting against an altered syllabus. Their seniors were gone by then, but perhaps in the few months of overlap, they did somehow leave the virus behind.

Unless we buy Dr Agashe’s theory, we have to ask – what is it about the FTII that makes its students so desperate time and again? If we are to end this history of strikes, what really needs to change?

Problem of government interference

If we stop dismissing the students and examine their demands every time, the patterns are obvious. Two issues appear repeatedly – academics and how the institute is run. From the beginning, it appears, there have been divergent ideas about what exactly this place, our national film school, stands for, and whom it belongs to.

There seems a fundamental flaw in the very impetus that created the FTII. Although an educational institution, it was set up under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that is, in essence, the propaganda wing of the Indian government. The I&B Ministry controls state television and radio as well as the government’s documentary producer, the Films Division. We’re told the initial idea was to create a vocational training centre that would supply workers to government departments and the film industry.

A few years after its creation, a review led to the formation of the FTII Society, recasting it as an autonomous film school that would be on par with its counterparts in Moscow, Paris, Prague and Warsaw. However, the ministry never actually relinquished its hold. According to the Articles of Association, the government appoints people to the FTII Society. Ex-officio members, nominated by default since they hold posts in various government-controlled bodies, fill a substantial number of the seats.

There seem no real rules about how others apart from these officials are to be chosen, which means that the government of the day can dole the appointments out as largesse to whomever it likes. When the FTII Society nominates the Governing Council, nearly half of it is made up of ex-officio members who find it easy to impose their decisions. A lack of vision at the top trickles down in all kinds of ways, reflecting in the subsequent appointments of the Director and faculty, the framing of syllabi and the setting of norms for student projects. The notorious backlog that currently makes FTII’s three-year courses continue for five years is a direct result of this.

While the members of the FTII Society have had questionable qualifications, its president has usually been chosen with care. No matter which political party came to power, it was always recognised that this person becomes the symbolic face that FTII presents to the world. The president also has real power over the institute’s other administrative bodies, and whenever the post has been compromised even slightly, things have taken a turn for the worse. The current appointments to the FTII Society and the agitations against them must be seen in this context.

Many people think that financial independence is the key to solving the institute’s problems. The fact that it is fully funded by the government of India, they argue, makes bureaucrats feel like they own it and renders true autonomy impossible. Others simply think that there’s no need for state money. Former FTII president Mahesh Bhatt, while holding office, famously asked why the government should subsidise film education when the country didn’t have enough drinking water. Needless to say, a strike marked his stewardship, too.

Bhatt’s remarks may sound like common sense, except that the I&B Ministry doesn’t spend any part of its annual budget on water supply projects. Also, film schools and drinking water are not opposite ideas. The fact is, countries that manage to provide clean water to all citizens usually also tend to have the best state-funded arts institutions. What renders the FTII important and unique is precisely the fact the government of India funds it. Art enriches life, so why should it be the preserve of the rich? Filmmaking is expensive, but if only the elite had access to it, we would have been denied some of the finest films in history.

A film institute for all

The subsidised education at state film schools like FTII and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata makes them the only avenues through which ordinary citizens can gain access to a field that is otherwise controlled by rich Bollywood families and corporate entities. This is why so many thousands apply for admission every year and FTII is able to pick the cream of talented applicants, unlike private film schools that are forced to admit anyone willing to pay the high fees.

The FTII is a public institution that belongs to us all, and this knowledge drives everyone associated with it. It is what makes the best minds in the country agree to visit it as teachers, take unpaid positions on its governing bodies and review committees, and to accept leadership of its Society. It is also what makes FTII students feel such a proud sense of ownership that they are willing stake everything to protect its legacy.

How, one might ask, does FTII have such a legacy if it has been in the throes of such problems since its inception? Luckily, there has always been another imagination propelling it forward. The idea of an Indian national film school, truly on par with the best in the world, took root in spite of everything. Visionary teachers starting from Ritwick Ghatak have enriched FTII over the years. Some of the most acclaimed film practioners in the world, like Krzysztof Zanussi, Istvan Gal, Jean-Claude Carriere, Raoul Coutard and Walter Murch, have broadened students’ minds. People leaving the institute have, in turn, not only returned to teach but have carried FTII’s legacy outside, from Mani Kaul’s luminous cinematic masterpieces to Subhash Ghai’s own film school.

It must be accepted that today the problems are multiplying and FTII’s ethos has been compromised. Still, the calibre of its training ensures a job for its graduates anywhere. Its student films span every political thought, speak a variety of languages and continue to surprise us with their quality and maturity, winning national awards and travelling to festivals, taking India’s name out into the world.

As I write this, the current FTII students’ strike reaches its 14th day. The ministry has barely engaged with them so far, perhaps hoping the trouble will evaporate if it is left alone. This strike, though, is different. This time, those outside are also speaking up. Students across the country are marching in solidarity with FTII because the issues being raised go beyond the problems of just one institution. No students should have to go on strike, at FTII or anywhere else. But perhaps students are the only ones who can fight such battles. The rest of us are too jaded, or, having already struggled to reach a certain place, have too much to lose. We measure our words and actions while it is they who speak fearlessly, even recklessly, on our behalf. The least we can do is to understand what puts them in this place.

Jabeen Merchant is a film editor and one of the authors of the PK Nair Committee's report Vision FTII: The Next 50 Years.