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Film Institute of India, as it was then called, started in 1962 and already by 1968 when I joined as a Direction student, Prof Satish Bahadur had collected most of his trademark shorts for teaching: Big City Blues, Wedding, Happy Anniversary, Terminus, Skidoo 23, Incident at the Owl Creek. Calling them text films, he analyzed them for us to smithereens. Followed Glass, Delta Phase One and other Bert Haanstra classics; then Neighbors, Chairy Tale and the rest of Norman McLaren’s. Longest was Satyajit Ray’s Samapti, the only Indian film of the lot, at 50 minutes. Among all these masterpieces—and to my secret admiration—Wedding was a work of students. It was a 20-minutes long diploma film from Moscow’s VGIK and produced under similar parameters as our own.

A pharmacist boy meets a musician girl on the city bus and they get talking. She has a domineering mother and the boy is afraid of her but hopes he can charm her to let them go on a date. One day, formally dressed and holding out a bunch of flowers, he decides to visit the girl’s house and dreams of success. But put to practice things end up horribly wrong. The girl has gotten married the same day and happens to return home with her groom and the guests just then. The boy is devastated but manages to hide in time. When he leaves, it’s with the same sprightly steps and flowers held out the same as before but a beaten, tragic figure.

Over 35 years of my teaching association with the FTII and 10 years since, not a single one of our diploma films measures up to Wedding’s simplicity, charm, tidiness, universal appeal, even profundity—why not?—and a downright killer sting at the end.

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Being a slow poke it took me towards the end of my years in the Institute to realise the enormity of the issue of quality of diploma films. What makes a good film school and how much of its goodness comes from the quality of its films? After Satyajit Ray, was our third world apology sufficient to cover up our inadequacies? Our “New Wave” films (a good number of which were made by ex-students), which we identified with and lent moral support to, were they any better? I had attended a number of film festivals and experienced the embarrassment in the first hand. Then I saw the newspaper coverage of those same festivals and read a different story. Writing for home readership, the Indian reporters portrayed the festival as though spinning around Indian films whereas foreign coverage barely noted our quaint titles and directors and sari-wrapped actresses, all of which helped towards nothing more than projecting the festivals’ international flavour. How can you have an international festival and not have blacks and browns and yellows and turbans and caps and the Chinese and the Mongols? (Chinese those days were not the Chinese they are today.)

Over time I saw a pattern. The whole thing was a game played between three parties, filmmakers, critics and the ministry, defending and justifying one another to the tax-paying public. Filmmakers made films by and large to one or the other art film likeness picked up from festivals, the critics variously praised them as a part of their declared commitment to the Wave and the bureaucrats thickened their files with press cuttings to justify expenditure to the auditors as well as to the political bosses. A mutual admiration society if you will. All three were an inevitable part of the glamorous jamboree to film festivals around the world.

All of which could be forgiven—after all, even if Bill Gates were to spare some crumbs from his table and decide to start a film movement, this would be the way to go—provided the process had thrown up a genuine talent. That sadly didn’t happen. Personalities aplenty but world-class filmmakers, none. After decades of government investment in films, Indian cinema’s undisputed greats have remained Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and Guru Dutt. All three predate the Indian New Wave by decades.

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One day sometime in the mid-80s, I saw a blazing red SUV (or was it orange?) parked on the Institute’s main road in front of the Cinematography department. All other cars looked puny and grey by comparison. Turned out it belonged to a successful ex-student of cinematography who had come to hold a workshop with camera students. All day the students passing by kept turning their heads to the car but himself, the young man was a picture of courtesy and humility. He hadn’t forgotten the production staff (light boys in particular), wanted to meet the present occupant of his hostel room and invited students to meet him for work in Bombay after the Institute. You may have your differences on the colour of his car but the man was living every film student’s dream anywhere the world.

Some of us wondered how far he could go in his career. He had already shot half a dozen A grade films and could shoot a dozen or two more. (A la Shyam Benegal, never say no to nothing.) Besides a flat in Bombay, he could buy another get away in Alibagh; then moving sideways, jostle up to the government and line up for a Padma Shree. Could he ever aspire to be a great cameraman? What does it take to be one in any case?

To my mind KK Mahajan is the only one from the Institute who comes closest to acquiring that stature. A very earthy Punjabi, he wasn’t your sophisticate with jargon but a ‘film worker’, who heard you patiently, filtered out wheat from a lot of chaff and gave you a good clean image. Unnoticed by many, KK’s career started exactly when Kodak’s black-and-white stock stopped being available in India but he gave consistently well-exposed stunning black-and-white results using ORWO negative and newly started Hindustan Photo Film’s lowly Indu positive. Above all he was happy to rough it out under low budget conditions that went with the Film Finance Corporation sponsored films.

As it happens, KK did not get associated with one single director but worked with all those leading the New Wave pack and more: Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Basu Chatterjee, (much like Raoul Coutard in relation to the French New Wave.) Cartoonist Mario Miranda was the first to recognise KK’s cult status and made a crisp pencil sketch of him at the camera for an article in Filmfare. No other technician ever again came to receiving such an honour. (That sketch would make a perfect illustration for this piece but I couldn’t find it.) NVK Murthy, our Director at the time, had the great wit and foresight to invite KK to read the convocation address way ahead of his years—such recognition usually comes to people much closer to their expire-by date. And if some gaps remained in KK’s mystique and myth, the man’s alcoholism flew in to seal them shut. “No matter how late the pack up, KK must drink his quota of booze after the shoot. But he would be the first to get up for that sunrise shot the next day.” Which was no doubt true.

But even KK Mahajan, alas, would not be among Cinema’s immortals because there is no film he was associated with that would stand the test of time. In fact, truth be told, they are already bangle material, those films. Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti, Aashad Ka Ek Din, Sara Aakash and Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan…. Should that shock you, don’t just go by your nurtured, ‘cultivated’ impression of these films, try and check them out on the screen afresh. The farther away in time we get from these New Wave films, the smaller they grow.

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Institute’s failure is actually only its student/ex-student directors’ failure. For others, the challenge is limited and many of our boys and girls today are world-class technicians. Light up a given location or set, and pan or tilt smooth, that’s the essentials of camera. Record clearly without the microphone showing in the frame and afterwards level and mix sounds provided by the editor, that’s recording. Edit to a scheme the footage generated during shooting, often just organising it so it makes sense, that’s editing.

But the directors’ call is tricky: First have a story, pant pant pant, then tell it with clarity, more pant pant pant. That’s it. To me all directors working today in the country, Institute or no Institute, are in varying degrees challenged in this key area. Their engaging accounts of difficulties they have had on the way to the screen hoodwink no one. We aren’t interested in their reasons for failure; we would much rather have them succeed, how about that? This subcontinent of humanity called India has been generous to filmmakers. Those who have told stories with clarity and emotional integrity have been rewarded with godhood. Others are mere chaff, a perpetually disgruntled lot, happy to wear the title of a filmmaker and whining their way to maintaining a matching lifestyle…

In the Institute’s context, it’s this disgruntled majority from all courses that has waged strikes down the years. Sub-consciously they are telling the world, these students, that they can’t perform because the Institute is so poorly run. Consciously—and this is interesting—they fight to be able to establish and cement relationship with the ex-students who they eventually see as their foothold in the industry. Filmmaking looked much easier from outside. That story telling could be so difficult can take the students/ex-students their entire careers to realise—and that only if they are lucky. They labor under the impression that anyone with basic intelligence and imagination—like themselves—could write or tell a story impromptu. It looks beneath their dignity to address story telling as an issue, much less to practice the craft through repeated effort. Story is verifiable while mouthing pompous film theory is not. Laffazi is enough to win the battle there, they think.

Before I am attacked with that timeless sheeshe-ke-ghar dialogue from Hindi cinema, let me admit to being a victim of the malaise myself. I recognised the problem in my own case, then saw it as fairly widespread among students in my charge. I began writing screenplays right after graduation, but after months and years of labor—“When is your film happening?” “I’m working on the script”—nothing ever got completed. Then I set that aside and took up another one. At the end of my teaching career I had a large trunk-load of handwritten foolscap ‘raddi’ that should have been about half a dozen scripts. (Now I have given up writing those; I just do pieces such as the present one once in a while.)

So, as a ‘decorated’ double-gold medalist in Direction from one of the earliest batches of the FTII, I count myself as the first culprit as regards the story, with a long queue of who’s who of Indian cinema following…

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However, it’s not as though I didn’t move to address the problem among the students. I did. And got egg on my face.

Syllabus revision has been as frequent as student strikes in the Institute, be it Subhas Ghai’s count of 39 times or Anil Zankar’s 7. In 2000, for once we decided to introduce a real radical change in the syllabus. As senior faculty and both of us ex-students, Prof Mehboob Khan and I led our colleagues to build in a component of student accountability in the course pattern. Not all would go to the next year, we decided; there were 2-3 seats less in 2nd and further 2-3 less in 3rd years (duly ploughing back the saved resources to enrich the remaining exercises both on time and duration.) Those who had to leave after 1st or 2nd years were not to be dumped into the sea but given suitable certification to join the profession at appropriate levels. Having to compete for seats every year was going to ensure application among students. The Academic and Governing Councils approved the new syllabus for implementation.

Interestingly, both current and ex-students jointly challenged the decision in high court even though neither party stood to be affected by the change. They were “fighting for future generations of students,” they said in the court. They lost. As a wit commented at the time, they wanted nothing less than full 3-year multiple entry visas—sure to be extended to 6—for everyone to the Institute campus that everybody loves to love. Admissions were duly made for the new course, students admitted and classes had gone on for three months when Girish Karnad was suddenly made Director of Nehru Centre in London and Vinod Khanna brought in in his place as chairman. Khanna’s brief was already known when he came to the Institute almost riding a galloping horse. To a jam-packed audience in the Main Theatre, he declared that the old course would be brought back and carried on the same chant in his meeting with the faculty afterwards. As on the screen, he was an instant hero among students and ex-students and before anybody could ask him what good cinema was, he was already and happily enshrined among the galaxy of eminent Chairmen of the FTII.

To be sure, the slide down of courses from 3 years to the present going rate of 7 has happened under the watch of the best of national awardee chairmen, none of them Nobel material. Given a suitable selection of clippings from YouTube, Vinod Khanna would not peg much higher than Gajendra Chauhan. Clearly it was a trade off behind closed doors between the ‘eminent’ Girish Karnad and the government to force an overall popular decision—academic procedures and propriety be hanged!—to restore the old course even for the 3 months old batch. Nobody noticed the irony that it was roughly the same time when the country had drawn a blank in the Olympic games and for the umpteenth time pundits were analysing the reasons for such a poor showing by a country of whatever number of millions we were at that time.

Just before the flip-flop I wrote an article for CILECT Review Our Baby-Fresh New Course giving my experience of teaching that new course. I am afraid you’d have to contend with my view of that period if you want to know how it was then, for no other piece on the subject was written at the time. The article is also posted on my blog.

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