Being FTII is a commemorative volume issued by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to mark 60 years of the Film and Television Institute of Pune. India’s leading film school has produced truckloads of talent since it began operations in 1961. Some of its most well-known alumni have contributed essays to Being FTII, in which they rewind to memories of what went on in the classroom and beyond it.

Here are edited excerpts from essays by Sriram Raghavan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shabana Azmi and Jahnu Barua about the institute that can “polish pebbles and dim diamonds”.

Sriram Raghavan, Screenplay Writing and Film Direction (1985-87)

I had given the entrance exam as a lark and when I got the call, I was already working with Mukul Anand, the upcoming hotshot director in Bombay. I thought that I should stick with him and learn on the job.

We were shooting in Khandala for Aitbaar (1985), a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. It was a three-day schedule and the interview date was bang in the middle of it. We were shooting a crucial scene where Dimple, the leading lady, was about to commit suicide when she hears a song that leads her to her college lover. I wanted to be there and watch the process of shooting a song. Plus, a third assistant can’t ask for leave. I forgot about the interview and got busy prepping for the shoot.

And kismet knocked. One of the stars had urgent work in Bombay, and we got a two-day break.

NVK Murthy, the genteel director, asked me if you are so happy working in Bombay, why do you want to join here?

I forgot my answer, but I got in.

The ball was in my court. To join or not to join.

Mukul totally encouraged me. He could foresee the growth of television and the digital medium. “If you stay here with me, it will take you at least 5-7 years to make your own film. You must join.” I wondered if he thought it was a good way to politely get rid of a terrible assistant.

During this time, I was also working for Trade Guide as a reporter and had to interview Saeed Mirza about Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho.

Saeed, a successful institute alumnus, was perhaps the best person to advise me.

Should I join the institute? His answer is forever.

He said that an institute will polish pebbles and dim diamonds.

I remember once as a student eavesdropping on two seniors animatedly discussing an esoteric European film. Major film jargon and film theory were being bandied about. Words like structuralism, semiotics, intertextuality and reality flew in the air. Also sitting under the tree was the craggy Shedge Saab, the driver, a veteran from Prabhat times. He was smoking a beedi and listening to them. I wondered what he understood. Finally, he stubbed his beedi and interrupted them. “Bahut knowledge hua, abhi kuch karo.” And walked away like Clint Eastwood.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Film Direction (1961-1965)

The real exciting period at the institute started with Prof Satish Bahadur joining at Head of Film Appreciation and Ritwik Ghatak taking over as Professor, Film Direction, and Vice Principal. That was in my second year.

Film appreciation soon found itself a very important position in the learning and understanding of cinema. Filmic expression, film history, thematic and cultural trends, structural analysis and technological developments, comparative studies of literature and arts etc came to assume special importance. Cinema could not be any more seen in isolation. There were detailed introductions before the screening of films to be followed by discussions in the end.

Prof Bahadur took up Pather Panchali (1955) as a text. It was dissected and analysed threadbare, screened without and without sound several times. It was examined for the composition of each shot. All the transitions were studied. All the music and sounds were scrutinized separately. The expression ‘film appreciation’ was finding its true meaning.

Stories about his drunken bouts and behaviour preceded Ritwik Ghatak, the enfant terrible of Indian cinema. A well-read scholar endowed with an undying passion for cinema, he was not at all like his well-publicised image. I cannot remember one instance of his coming to the class in an inebriated state.

He had, of course, strong likes and dislikes. He adored Bunuel and hated Bergman. I still remember his erudite talk on [Luis Bunuel’s] Nazarin (1959). He would dub Bergman a fake.

His best classes were when he screened his films for us and then talked about the hows and whys of his approach. He was the typical iconoclast who did not fight shy of breaking conventions. Conviction was what carried the fervour forward. Again it was against all popular misconceptions that he screened Satyajit Ray’s films for us and termed some of the sequences ‘great cinema’.

The Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. Courtesy FTII.

Shabana Azmi, Acting (1971-73)

Fresh out of college, I decided to enrol at the FTII Poona as a student in acting, then headed by the legendary professor Roshan Taneja – ‘Sir’ as we called him with respect. He had been a student with Lee Strasberg’s Acting Studio in the USA.

My first meeting with him will always remain memorable. When I entered the room for my audition, I saw him sitting at a desk, both of his hands capped under his chin (a gesture we would all get familiar with), and said in a neutral tone, “Come in.” His manner was not intimidating but there was something about him that unnerved me and I started forgetting my lines right in the middle of the scene I was auditioning for. It was a letter I was supposedly reading from my grandmother.

Unable to remember, I started making up my lines as I went along, pretending that my grandmother’s handwriting was difficult to read, which was why I was stumbling etc. After the audition, I closed my eyes, knowing that I’d been caught forgetting my lines. I waited, heart in mouth, to hear him dismiss me. Instead, he smiled warmly for the first time and congratulated me for making the grade. “I knew you had forgotten your lines but that you carried on undaunted, making up the lines rather than stop the scene shows that you were ‘at the moment’. And that’s what matters.”

Taneja Saheb would take pains to explain that an actor is her instrument. For a sitar player to be good, it would depend both on the dexterity of her fingers plus how finely tuned the sitar is.

An actor only has herself. Her face, her body, her gait but most of all the ability to absorb life around you like a sponge and mine it for the benefit of the character you play. A student of acting must watch theatre and films, read books, go to art galleries, attend music concerts, be interested in people of all kinds.

The canteen boy became a mate, we shared our secrets with the auto-rickshaw wala who took us every Saturday to Mobo’s, the only discotheque in Pune at that time. Subliminally thanks for FTII, we were imbibing respect for “the other”… irrespective of class, caste or race.

Jahnu Barua, Film Direction (1971-1974)

The favour of weekends all though those three years of study was, of course, Double Ghoda – a brand of cheap liquor that was the favourite of most of us because it suited our pockets and made horse sense. We used to troop to the hostel terrace on most Saturday evenings and party late into the night.

The fulcrum of the horseplay, of course, was Double Ghoda working as a catalyst for exhilarating our endless sessions of discussions. Possible there was not topic known to man that we did not touch upon – art, literature, philosophy and what have you. From ‘Gandhi’s flaws’ to ‘How Eisenstein should have started his Battleship Potemkin’. No one and nothing was spared because with Double Ghoda inside us we knew the best.

Everyone had a considered opinion on every topic and aired them with elan between swills. We discussed Sigmund Freud’s analyses, punched holes in Eisenstein’s theories and generally rode high on Double Ghoda. But weaved in all that bluster was a strong thread of knowledge that I think stood each of us in good stead later on in life.

The rise of regional cinemas a genre owes an incalculable debt to FTII. I am firm in my belief that were it not for the Institute, language cinema would have remained poor cousins of the so-called mainstream movies. Before the institute graduates began making films in different Indian languages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a yawning abyss between mainstream Hindi cinema and regional cinema. The institute provided a common platform and trained talents from across the length and breadth of the country.

The FTII through its alumni not only introduced new thoughts and theories into regional cinema, it gave it a new direction and goal and helped bridge the chasm between the two cinema worlds. It also helped refine the craft of movie-making. A different trend took root – parallel serious films in all Indian languages. Some of which, we are all proud to say, rate among the classics of world cinema today.

Excerpted with permission from Being FTII – Perspectives on the Film and Television Institute of India, Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.

Also read:

Adoor Gopalakrishnan: ‘Cinema is the greatest art form the human mind has given shape to’

Sriram Raghavan interview: ‘Every movie is a commitment, you have to be damn sure about it’

Acting guru Roshan Taneja on the students who disproved the belief that ‘actors are born, not made’