The Narendra Modi government is planning to privatise the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata.

According to a report in The Indian Express, of the 114 autonomous institutions reviewed by officials of the Niti Aayog and the Prime Minister’s office – in the first phase of the review of 679 autonomous institutions – nearly a third have been listed for “reduction”, or reorganisation, or corporatisation. “Reduction” is euphemism for merging them with other bodies or winding them up completely.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Indian Express that the film institutes would either become independent companies or a special purpose vehicle would be created to take over their functioning.

Jayashree Mukherjee, additional secretary in the information and broadcasting ministry, however, told that she had “no idea” about the proposal. She only heard about it from the newspapers, she claimed.

Founded in 1960, the FTII is India’s premier film school while the Satyajit Ray institute, started in 1995, is not far behind. Both have contributed greatly to the country’s pool of filmmaking talent, with films produced by their students and alumni garnering national and international awards. Indeed, it was graduates from the FTII who fostered the birth of India’s parallel cinema movement in the late 1960s.

“Until recently, FTII and SRFTI stood for freedom of expression and freedom of experimentation, and that should be nurtured,” said Jeroo Mulla, a teacher at the Sophia Polytechnic media school in Mumbai. “It is highly unlikely that the unusual talent that has been fostered in an institute like FTII will be possible in a private institute.”

Shyamal Karmakar, a faculty member at the Satyajit Ray institute, said he was not surprised by the proposal because the idea of corporatisation had been floating around for years. Corporatisation was a means to make the institutes “self-sufficient”, he said.

“Hopefully, corporatisation will make us responsible for revenue generation, cost-cutting and better use of the budget,” Karmakar said. “If this process censors the students in their thought process or it becomes unaffordable for students, that should not happen. I am choosing to look on the positive side because it seems corporatisation is bound to happen.”

For the many, not the few

The main argument in favour of having a state-run film school is that it is open to students from “diverse backgrounds”, said the filmmaker and editor Reena Mohan. She added: “By diverse, I do not mean only economically disadvantaged but also those whose families are not supportive because it is still not considered okay to be a filmmaker.” Such students could be shut out as corporatisation would inevitably lead to increase in fees, Mohan said. In effect, she added, the government would be “abdicating” its “vital and necessary” role in “nurturing the arts”.

Describing himself as “a product of government institutions right from primary school”, Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty said the FTII’s mission was not to churn out “high-earning students” but to “find people with talent from all over the country, people who would not otherwise make it in the industry”. He added, “People with money aren’t going to FTII. Those people are going to the New York Film School. Most students at FTII are from lower or middle-class families.”

Referring to his own experience at the film school, Pookutty added, “If FTII wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be doing cinema. Adoor Gopalakrishnan wouldn’t be making films. FTII has given people who never had a chance in life an opportunity to come up.”

Cinematographer Dharam Gulati, who heads the FTII alumni association GRAFTII, too, questioned the proposal. Citing Afternoon Clouds, a short film by FTII student Payal Kapadia that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, as an example of the quality of work being done at the institute, Gulati said, “The students are making beautiful films which are winning laurels within the country and internationally so they should not put FTII within the ambit [of the proposal].”

Gulati dismissed speculation that the plan was punishment for the 2015 strike at the FTII against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as its director. It was part of a wider plan and focused on a wide range of autonomous bodies, he pointed out.

Pookutty said that instead of privatising the institute, the government should run it better. “Why should a civil servant be appointed as director to run FTII?” he asked. “That just doesn’t work”. Recalling a meeting with an information and broadcasting minister who had visited the FTII, Pookutty said, “He said all he could see was this old dilapidated building and that it should be destroyed and a new building should be built in its place. But it is the Prabhat museum, which should be preserved and looked after. They should make FTII into a higher research institution. The place to learn all about cinema.”

Mohan, who has conducted workshops at both the FTII and the Satyajit Ray institute, said privatisation could damage the quality and nature of education imparted at the film schools. “Private institutes are businesses and they don’t spend adequately on facilities and infrastructure,” she said. “Their syllabi are ad hoc, their aim being to admit as many students as possible and make profits without investing enough in staff, guest lecturers, equipment, etc.”

In 2011, former National Film Archive of India director PK Nair, along with 11 other luminaries of the cinema word, had authored a voluminous report titled Vision FTII: The Next 50 Years. The report, which was submitted to the Information and broadcasting ministry, was a response to another report calling for the privatisation of the institute. The report suggested, among other measures, an overhaul of the way the institute was run, better pay and staffing structures, and greater autonomy.

(With inputs from Anubha George).