Payal Kapadia’s historic win at the Cannes Film Festival All We Imagine As Light is not just a personal triumph. By scooping up the Grand Prix, or the prestigious festival’s second-highest honour, on Saturday, the Film and Television Institute of India graduate has done her alma mater proud – the same college that had imposed punitive measures against her for “indiscipline”.

In 2015, Kapadia was among the students who protested the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairman. Chauhan, the Hindi film industry actor and Bharatiya Janata Party member, clearly lacked the qualifications to lead the venerated institution whose rigorous ethos has produced some of Indian cinema’s best-known directors, actors and technicians.

A group of students went on strike for 139 days between June and October in 2015. Their actions included picketing FTII director Prashant Patrabhe in his office. Several students were served with chargesheets by the Pune Police, which was summoned on to campus. The FTII administration also disciplined eight students, including Kapadia, cutting off their scholarships and debarring them from participating a foreign exchange programme that would help them participate in international film festivals.

Kapadia got a reprieve in 2017, when her short film Afternoon Clouds was selected for Cannes’s Cinefondation section, open to film schools from around the world. FTII sponsored the third-year direction student’s travel to Cannes. According to a Hindustan Times report, FTII took this decision because it “observed Kapadia being disciplined” in her conduct.

Kapadia has only gone from strength to strength since. In 2019, she completed the documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing, in which a woman’s epistolary exchange with her lover takes place amidst seething protests by students across the country. The film was selected for Cannes, where it won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary.

Other FTII talent also shone at Cannes this year. FTII student Chidanand S Naik’s Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know won the top award in the student film category. This year’s Cannes selection includes Maisam Ali’s In Retreat (Ali is Kapadia’s batch mate).

In a parallel event, Cannes honoured FTII alum Santosh Sivan for his contributions to cinematography with the Pierre Angenieux Tribute.

The Pune film institute is one of the pet targets of Hindutva supporters. In January, when the Ram temple was being inaugurated in Ayodhya, Hindutva supporters barged onto the campus and tore down a poster recalling the demolition in 1992 of the Babri Masjid that had stood on the site. Seven students were booked for insulting religious beliefs.

Reviled as a den of “anti-national activity”, the FTTI has instead proved itself as a cradle of talent. India’s pre-eminent film school has maintained its reputation of turning out rigorously trained, open-minded and adventurous filmmakers – the kinds who get noticed by respected festivals like Cannes, and who bring glory to India even as they exercise their Constitutional right to expression in the world’s largest democracy.

Also read:

Cannes Film Festival: Payal Kapadia is first Indian to win Grand Prix for ‘All We Imagine As Light’

‘All We Imagine As Light’ review: A poetic exploration of love and dreams

In ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’, the hopes and dreams of young Indians