[In 1998 we undertook a major overhaul of our FTII syllabus and introduced what we called the ‘earn’ concept. While earlier the students would pass through the entire course pretty much uninterrupted, under the new arrangement they should have to earn passage from year to year and exercise to exercise, including—especially— participating in the resource-intensive, course-ending diploma film. The change ruffled many a feather and beside protests and strikes on the campus, the new course was even challenged in the court. Finally a change of guard at the top—from Girish Karnad to Vinod Khanna—reverted the effort back to where it had been before.
In this article, written just before the course was wound up, I outline the dynamics of that new course and record my experience of teaching it for the few months that it lasted. The article was later published in the CILECT Review.
Though 15 years old, the import of this piece remains central to all education, not just film. All academics in the ultimate analysis is concerned with spreading available resources, judiciously, over deserving students. The choice is stark: Do you reward the competent few or sustain the average many? In other words, does the teacher pitch for the frontbenchers or those at the rear?
The answer, all too often I’m afraid, depends upon which of the two your daughter or son resembles more.]
Ours is probably the oldest film school in the east. Started by the government of India in 1960, we’ve been going non-stop ever since. Except for an acting course, which never quite fitted in with the rest and faded out over the late seventies, we have all along offered a core of four film courses—direction, cinematography, sound recording and editing—the first three being three year duration while the last, editing, was always two years. It must be an indication of the size of the Indian film industry that after all these years there are still filmmakers and workers at all levels in the profession who have only heard of the FTII, never seen it.
All along from time to time we had been making modifications in our curricula, but mid-eighties onwards we noticed a definite decline in our standards. We would enter our diploma films in all kinds of competitions as before but not just the awards, even acceptance in festivals gradually dried up. Under the influence of an experimental cinema lobby of ex-students, any suggestion for material changes in the course structure ensuring student accountability had been something of a red rag to them. In 1991, I suggested introduction of an earn concept to the Academic Council—that the student should earn the right to make a diploma film rather than have the diploma film prescribed for all—but the idea was considered too radical at that time. Since then it has taken us a spate of student strikes, resignations of two top functionaries and months of faculty meetings last year to affect changes both in syllabus and course structure, so as to bring ourselves somewhat in step with the times. (Collapse of Soviet Union too, I suspect, helped.)
Essentially what we have done is as follows. First, dissolve the wall of 25 years between our film and television wings and decide to enrich—the critics say dilute—our film diplomas with television. Brought to the campus in 1974, the television wing had so far been giving in-service training exclusively to the employees of the national television. Now that is no longer their brief. Secondly, we have shifted emphasis from heavy teaching of decades to learning, not just by doing, but in turn from one another’s doing as well. Which I think is truly Eisenstein’s I-can’t-teach-you-but-you-can-learn approach. And thirdly, we have incorporated the earn-concept in a much wider form than originally thought; now even going to the next year should be earned. In the new dispensation, our erstwhile 3-year courses are now three of one year duration each; you have to do one in order to qualify for the next, for which you must apply afresh. The number of seats available in each reduces successively, so that now we have provision for 80, 48 and 32 students in what we call Basic, Certificate and Diploma courses in Film and Television respectively.
While the last batch of the omnibus 3-year course still lingers, we have the first batch of the basic course already four months old. Admitted over the end of 1999, we have thus been lucky to start the new millennium with almost a clean slate. And the initial experience, at least of this writer, is not only positive but also revealing in ways unknown to him in all his 25 years of teaching. No longer assured of an automatic sail-through from year to year, the students are now at least prepared to listen.
All eighty being required to do exercises in all four disciplines in the basic course, we have evolved a system of weekly rotation of groups in each of direction, cinematography, audiography and editing. There are four such cycles—called modules—interspersed with a week of theory lectures each, attending which is for once not compulsory for the student. For the first time ever in FTII, a student can take it easy over that one week without feeling guilty. He can attend whichever classes he feels will be useful for him. Or go to the library, canteen. Or even sit idle under the tree, recharging for the next module of four hectic weeks. Altogether the modules take roughly half the year, after which the students are regrouped afresh, half going for multi-camera, TV studio exercises (again ensuring everybody has a chance to have a feel of all positions for a simple television production) and the other half for 16mm sep-mag exercises. Finally the course ends with each student getting to write, direct, photograph, record and edit a 5-minute program, in fiction or non-fiction as per student director’s option, on DV-CAM.
Over the modules in each of the four disciplines, uniformly the students are given to do exercises of graded complexity. We in direction have so far done nearly two, one by the whole class and the second by just one fourth. Using two S-VHS cameras and editing set-ups, we devoted the first module to level up the class through just fooling around with the equipment. In the second module we gave them a six-shot silent exercise using one character and nothing but continuity cuts. When the first results came, it was a pleasure to know first of all that all exercises were complete and that all eight students were present for discussion. In addition to the two teachers who had worked with the group over the week, another colleague and I joined to discuss and evaluate the exercises over a dense three-hour session.
One exercise showed a young man bouncing a basketball in the court before he went round to score a goal. Another showed a girl sitting at her office desk, doing now this, now that. A third one showed a man enter the room, walk to a chair and sit down. Soon the pattern was clear. These were pieces of action that you covered in six shots for the exercise. Asked for more or less shots, you could easily do that as well. The question then arose: A hundred years into the cinema, was it enough of an exercise asking students just to make continuity cuts? What about the logic of shot division, of cuts? Given a routine multi-camera situation in a TV studio, the number of continuity cuts you could possibly make around an action was limited only by the speed with which the editor could switch buttons. Why did you, then, need to make them as many or as few as you did? Wasn’t story the presiding factor from which ultimately all logic emanated? And in that case, can we ask them to tell a story in six shots?
We asked the subsequent groups to try and do just that. Alarmed initial reactions like, “But we haven’t received the ‘input’!” “Beginning of a story, yes, but a whole story in six shots?” “Just what is a story anyway?”, were set aside asking them to simply recall listening to grandmother’s stories and go for it the best they could. Again all exercises were complete and all eight students present when the results came. And this time round we had great fun discussing them also, starting with asking whether a given exercise qualified to be called a story or not. Most didn’t but a surprising number did. One exercise showed a young girl on a terrace reach out for a kite stuck among the branches of a tree. The girl falls to her death and the kite comes floating down to land beside her. We all thought that this was a story, thanks mainly to the kite coming down. Short of that it would merely be an accident, not a story.
For my lecture in the next theory week I presented a collection of two-line stories from various sources. One, a man turned to another in a train. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked. “No,” replied the other—and disappeared! Another, a boy was given to speaking everything in verse. Sick of this irritating habit, his father one day began to thrash him. Upon which the boy cried, “Father, father, mercy take / Verses I shall never make!” Next we saw the one shot Lumiere classic showing the prank a boy plays on a gardener by stepping on his hose. Finally we ended the session seeing a sample of their own previous exercises, both successes and interesting failures. (These had been seen in smaller groups so far.) The issue of what makes a story having been sufficiently warmed up, as also the fact that their next module exercise had again been decided to be a story besides other formal requirements, the coin fell right in the slot.
So strong is our newfound faith in the story that the department wonders if the same principles might apply in some way to even non-fiction! At any rate, we are looking forward to seeing all their fiction exercises over the year to collectively arrive at, not only working definition of story but also a whole variety of manners in which story may find expression in our local production context. Unless laboring under western influences, how can an Indian script talk of cars screeching to a halt, for example, given the crowded Indian traffic and a good population still of Ambassadors? Looking back upon our entire institute experience we find that a credible Indian story—credible, Indian and a story—is what we have not quite understood and that may well be the only thing seriously wrong with our diploma films. Having accepted facile arguments defending their scripts as modern, open-ended, personal, political, experimental etc. all along junior exercises, it’s too late by the time students—direction students—come to their diploma films. What they have learnt by that time is, one, that offence is the best form of defense, and two, looking misunderstood is the best posture to take, both through the making of that film as well as later into their careers.
Only subsequent crops of diploma films will eventually tell if we are—were—right in our thinking but one thing is certain: That there simply was no space for such thinking in the earlier climate of student indiscipline. And as for learning attitudes, why, video was all along an ‘untouchable’ on the FTII campus, wasn’t it!