When Film and Television Institute of India alum Gauri D Chakraborty told other female graduates of the hallowed film school that their experiences were going to be documented in a book, she was met with both relief and disbelief.
“One response was that people were waiting for this to happen, and another was scepticism about whether the endeavour would ever see the light of day,” Chakraborty told Scroll.in.
The project did fructify. Balancing The Wisdom Tree, edited by Chakraborty, was launched at the International Kolkata Book Fair on March 8.
The anthology is a tribute to the women who entered an overwhelmingly male world and reshaped it. In recalling inspiring but also obstacle-strewn journeys undertaken on the campus and beyond, Balancing The Wisdom Tree provides a concise history of the often-neglected contributions of women to Indian cinema and television.
The book was commissioned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s Publications Division to mark FTII’s 60th anniversary in 2021. It follows Being FTII, a commemorative volume containing essays by some of the institute’s most well-known alumni.
The new volume puts a precise number to the number of female graduates from FTII – 503 between 1965 and 2016. Apart from listing every graduate by name, year of graduation and discipline, Balancing The Wisdom Tree includes personal essays and conversations between practitioners.
The book cover has been designed by Dorothy Gupta Varma, the first woman to be trained in art direction at FTII, and Anamika Chaudhary.
The writings and interviews are characterised by celebration as well as circumspection. “Every girl that applies to FTII is both a rebel and a dreamer, doubly so compared to the boys…” director Soudhamini writes. “FTII addressed both these aspects wonderfully.”
Editor Irene Dhar Malik says, “When you leave FTII, you realise that you never really leave the place. Every time I have gone back to the campus, it’s as if I was a student just yesterday.”
Pinky Brahma Choudhury speaks of the “equal eye” created by FTII’s eclectic syllabi and its immeasurable impact on the Indian film industry: “… the cadence of languages from across the world that we experienced though subtitled films of fascinating cinema convinced me to want to make films in the language close to me – story of the people in their own language”.
The nostalgia is tempered by a recognition of the gender disparity on campus.
“In the 35 years between 1965-2000, 150 women graduated while approximately 350 women were trained between 2000-2019, the data being a clear indication that in recent years far greater numbers of women have enrolled at the premier institution for formal training in film and television,” Chakraborty writes in her introductory essay. “Yet these are on a significantly lower scale considering far more men trained from the Institute have entered the multi-structured film, media education and training landscape.”
Being one of very few women in a class, or at times the only woman, wasn’t always a pleasant adventure. In her conversation with Hansa Thapliyal, Chandita Mukherjee says, “The day I landed in the campus, a strapping young man put his booted foot on the edge of my chair in the canteen and shouted into my face, demanding an explanation as to why I was denying a ‘good boy’ his chances by blocking a seat for a profession which I would never pursue.”
Among the issues addressed by the contributors is the question of why, unlike men, women step out of the field because of domestic pressures or in favour of other pursuits.
“The overall numbers are meagre, and everyone isn’t in the active mainstream – some have gone over to academics,” Chakraborty said. “What is remarkable is that so many of them haven’t given up. They are still striving and working on independent productions.”
One of the possible obstacles is the old boys’ network that exists in the film and television industries, which ensures that assignments pass on from one set of men to another, Chakraborty observed.
“Some women have moved on to, say, start a pottery studio, so they are not entirely out of the creative space,” Chakraborty added. “For instance, although Sonali Sarkar from the 2004 batch isn’t an active filmmaker any more, she runs a cafe in Kolkata called Wisdom Tree.” Named after the fabled tree on FTII’s campus, the restaurant served as the venue for an alumni meeting.
The Wisdom Tree features in several accounts, as does a bench across from the hostel for women and the beloved hostel matron, Gloria Koshy.
“…FTII was critical in creating a context of cinematic practice as well as a serious ground for experimentation for young filmmakers, which was missing in the workspaces outside the institute,” Rajula Shah told Sameera Jain during their conversation. The bench, which Shah and her classmates “wanted to take it home with them” was “a site for so many friendships, conversations, feelings, and readings of life, zones of comfort and beauty”.
Several of the names featured in the book will be familiar to cinephiles who read film credits carefully. From actors to directors, sound designers to editors, cinematographers to production designers, small numbers of women have rubbed shoulders with men soon after FTII started offering courses in 1961.
Parvati Nayar Menon, the first woman to enrol for an advanced direction course in 1963, told Gauri Chakraborty, “I didn’t feel any particular unease at being the only student as I had been to co-ed institutions earlier, and was very often a minority in my species! Yes, as a profession I was treading a new path, and some of the boys wondered how I would manage.”
The conversations and essays include reminiscences about encounters with other students and the staff and the professional journeys that followed graduation.
Bina Paul says in her conversation with Surabhi Sharma, “Arriving in this beautiful campus, staying away from home in an atmosphere of individual agency and exposure to the world of cinema was breathtaking.”
Chakraborty, a production management student, was roped into the project by filmmaker and editor Reena Mohan. Chakraborty, who teaches at Times School of Media in Delhi, credits Mohan and former FTII director Bhupendra Kainthola with providing the framework and the contacts to make Balancing The Wisdom Tree a reality.
“I started work in November 2020, and was soon consumed by the book,” Chakraborty said. “Each time someone told me, do you really think this will happen, my resolve was strengthened.”
Chakraborty started out by circulating a Google form that invited alumni to fill out information on their year of graduation and their subsequent journeys. “Was the number of graduates 424 or 503 – that became clearer later on,” Chakraborty said.
There were several surprises during the book’s two-year journey. “For instance, I didn’t know that Renu Saluja [the renowned film editor] came into the film world because of her sister [the actor] Radha Saluja,” Chakraborty said. “Radha is now in Los Angeles, where she speaks 11 languages and is a court interpreter. She was a discovery for me.”
Some of the conversations are between women who pursued the same course at different times. These include Namita Nayak Chopra, only the second Indian woman to be trained in audiography, and Gissy Michael.
At her selection interview, Michael was told she could be the “second Namita”. Meanwhile, Nayak Chopra got a call from her contacts at FTII, telling her that her “solo occupancy of the field” had ended.
The note-swapping by women across generations creates a feeling of community and solidarity. This exists alongside bracing recollections of the problems that have and continue to dog FTII’s administration and its academic slant.
As director Putul Mahmood pithily puts it, “I see critiquing as a sign of love. It is because you care.”
Unlike the male students, who come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, many female students tend to be relatively privileged – the vanguard of a change in representation that was hoped for, Chakraborty said.
“Men tend to have a fuller palate,” she added. “If these kinds of women would join the institute, imagine the explosion of voices.”
Chakraborty hopes that Balancing The Wisdom Tree will become a “go-to book for gender studies scholars” keen on filling the gaps of female representation in cinema and television. “It’s a consolidated thing, you get it all in one place,” she said. “I hope that this book inspires further research.”