Student Member Reveals The Complete Sham That Was The FTII Academic Council Meeting

By Harishankarnachimuthu. K:

“Art is the triumph over chaos.” John Cheever

It has been almost 7 months since the most chaotic albeit eventful period of my life in FTII as a student came to an end. After 139 days of being on strike and the lessons learnt during this tumultuous period, of having been exposed to both the bureaucratic tropes and the administrative tactics, as a filmmaker, my vision about the gravitas of this place that people call the Film and Television Institute of India has become more clear.

An Academic Meeting With Little To Do With Academics

NEW DELHI,INDIA JULY 03: Students shout slogans at a protest against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the FTII governing council, in New Delhi.(Photo by Praveen Negi/India Today Group/Getty Images)
Photo by Praveen Negi/India Today Group/Getty Images

On June 1 this year, when Ranjit and I (another student representative of the Academic Council which includes the Director, Vice-Chairman, ex-officio members, alumni, select HODs and faculty among others) entered the TV building for the 74th AC meeting, we were taken by surprise. Being an active member who has taken part in at least 3 previous AC meetings, I was disoriented by the whole mis-en-scène upon setting my foot in the conference room. The floor was adorned by a traditional rangoli, members were being greeted with a smile and handed a rose while the introduction for each member went on in true Filmfare style, with only Yanni as background music missing.

Just looking at all this I wanted to laugh out at the whole pretence that was being orchestrated to make us feel that we are in for some serious business. There were place cards kept on the table which were bilingual with the side written in Hindi facing front. Being a non-Hindi speaker (having only managed to speak and understand Hindi after three years of my stay here but still not fluent with reading it), I in all innocence asked the members to turn the place cards around so that I could read the names. The look on their faces at this request made me think that they clearly had ‘doubts’ about my commitment to their idea of ‘nationalism’. But ever so kindly, they all obliged.

Then began the drama that I feel had been orchestrated by them after a few rehearsals. The meeting started with the discussion on the new/revised syllabus to be implemented for the batch of 2016 which is expected to begin in the last week of July.

The first question we (the 2 student members) asked the house was to elaborate on the historic context and the chronology of the process involved in making the syllabus to the members who are new to the system. And pretty much from this point onwards the entire rant of ‘Us vs You’ was started by the Administration.

The chairman of the AC outright denied our demand.

A Brief Recap

Those not in the know, the Syllabus Review Committee at FTII was setup by then Director (D.J. Narain, 2015) and it consisted of domain experts from each department along with internal faculty and student representatives. They were actively involved in the process and a basic structure was proposed to the 2015 AC and it was decided that more work on the micro detailing part should be done before the change in syllabus can be passed.

Post the strike (which ended in October 2015), that committee was completely bypassed by the FTII administration. In fact, once in an informal meeting, the Chairman had referred to the domain experts as “your people”. Just because the experts were sensible enough to understand the gravity of the matter and viewed a change in syllabus as a serious step and spoke of caution being exercised before making a hurried decision, they became “our” people. Well by that logic, anyone who speaks rationally is our so we happily embrace them.

The credibility and intelligence of these domain experts was undermined just because of petty egos at play. But after the end of the meeting on June 1, I realised it was not just ego, but a larger intellectual and ideological cleansing that is at play here.

A Hurried ‘Discussion’

At the meeting, the syllabus was introduced to the house in a very brief and ad-hoc manner. The discussion started with the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS). To start with, this system is very alien to us and was rejected by the earlier academic councils too. But PSDS (Post Strike Development Syndrome) as I call it, has led to the introduction of CBCS and electives at FTII.

We therefore, asked for more deliberation on both accounts. CBCS was sold to us as if it is going to solve all possible problems, including the current drought in Maharashtra.

By exercising their power and overriding our objections, the syllabus was hurriedly passed by the AC. Happy with their achievement, the members declared lunch-break. We were told our resistance was minuted. That’s all.

The meeting resumed with the discussion about the new statutes which are going to be implemented for the institute. There was one which stated that the hostel accommodation is not a right of the student! I almost lost it when this was read out.

Hostel Not A ‘Right’ Of Students At FTII

Ours is a residential campus and the kind of work culture which exists here – from late night shoots to evening screenings and workshops which extend till midnight – it’s very important for a student to have hostel facilities. And as a government institution, it also becomes the responsibility of the administration to provide hostel facilities for everybody who enrolls in a course, otherwise how do you expect a student from a poor family to study here?

This will eventually lead to a state where only the creamy layer of society can afford to study in a place like this. When we objected to this very lame statute we were told that we should uphold the ‘ethos’ of the place and the ‘over-staying’ of students was cited as the reason for the new rule.

Isn’t it absurd that the rules are being made keeping in mind the defaulters and not social order and justice? After a heated debate on the matter it was finally agreed that the students will be given hostel facilities till the prescribed length of the course. The danger here is also in the way in which the place is seen.

Our residence is seen as a place of all kinds of immoral and illegal activities on which the tax payer’s money is being wasted! Never mind the subsidies of not just lakhs but crores given to big corporate houses, to the Adanis and Ambanis of this world.

They use the tax payers hard earned money to advertise about their non-existent achievements (courtesy Photoshop) on the front pages of national dailies. And even after that they are left with enough money to use the institution bus to get dhol-patakas when someone like Mr. Gajendra Chauhan has to visit the campus.

Last I checked, the tax payer’s money goes to providing civic amenities and basic facilities to the people of the country which includes roads, schools, hospitals, colleges, hostels etc. and not for giving big corporates tax holidays. Point to be noted – as per newspaper reports, the debt that the Adani group owes to PSUs equals the entire debt of Maharashtra farmers. But to the government, farmers committing suicide isn’t a matter of urgency and importance.

To Be Implemented: Discipline, Peace And Harmony

Moving on, a new post of a ‘Proctor’ was proposed at the meeting to maintain discipline on campus. His ambit of power would include the right to rusticate a student as a part of the disciplinary action. Good! Justice should prevail. But what about the corrupt appointments and the hundreds of complaints given against the faculty to the Ministry? When we made this argument in the meeting, everyone’s blood pressure suddenly seemed to go high. One of the members in the council said to me, “It’s not symmetrical and students should be students.” After a long deliberation, another line was introduced that the proctor’s role is to main peace and harmony in the campus. (Discipline still sounded okay to me, but I am sceptical about this word ‘peace’. Peace is the most corrupt and violent word in India in the way it has been abused).

However, it was with the evening tea that the most awaited PPT on FTII arrived.

A Blinding Vision

Harishankar FTIIAs per the Academic Council norms, it is necessary to send the documents to all members of the council seven days before the meeting. In a clear violation of norms, the information for this PPT had not been shared with us, and therefore, we had good reasons to doubt its content. Not to mention the flourish with which it was being presented to us.

The presentation began with the first slide reading in big bold letters “VISION DOCUMENT”. Frankly my vision was blurred by the flimsy orchestration of it all.

The ‘VISION DOCUMENT’ with its objective being revision of FTII and seeing it transform into an institute of national importance was presented enthusiastically. But at least to the both of us sitting there, it didn’t look like an innocent document at all.

The introduction of courses like Make-up, Media Management, Radio Jockeying in an institute of higher education like FTII which imparts a specialised learning in cinema doesn’t really sit well. Keep in mind the role FTTI as a subsidised institution plays in spreading the culture of cinema as an art form. As also the spirit of experimentation in form which it encourages and its commitment to socio-political realities which give possibilities and hopes to a lot of young minds.

The Large Screen Problem

Without even differentiating between mass communication and cinema, the model that the AC is trying to implement will kill the place completely. Before you quip that I am panicking, give a thought to the fact that FTII is not a money minting institution. It is a film school where a very specialised kind of learning takes place and dilution of any kind stands detrimental to the very fundamental principle of this place.

If profit making is the only need then why should FTII be called a government institution? For an institute which manages courses so poorly that a 3-year course extends up to 8 years, and then cries foul for providing hostels, how will another 20 odd courses function here? There is not enough faculty to teach current courses, so what is with all this sweet talk about upgradation and development?

It’s a clear route map to sell this place.

A market driven polytechnic kind of idea where you supply force to industry and generate revenue with all the crash courses can fool a lot of youngsters in search of glamour. Students from poor backgrounds, Dalit students and students from religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities can never have a place in the institution if this ‘Vision Document’ is implemented. Their vision is of a corporatised, homogenised education with no values and scope for social justice as a parameter anywhere.

A Missing Teacher And A Narrow-Minded Teacher

Mr. Tom Alter has resigned from the post of Head of Department, Acting (HOD), citing personal commitments as a reason. At the meeting, the director of the institute and also other members in the council were in agreement to request him to join again. But I asked them a simple question – that even after students of the department complained about Mr. Alter’s inability to be on campus full time and the patronising behavior in the policies of the department, why was there no enquiry?

Any sensible person would agree that in a higher institution, you need an HOD who should stay on campus and if not stay, at least be available for work full-time. Honorary positions just don’t work. The Institute is not anybody’s private property. Just because somebody is senior and might have done some substantial work in the industry doesn’t mean that you can’t question them when it comes to their work for which they have appointed in the first place. Any kind of nepotism or favouritism will only add to the mediocrity we are fighting against.

As this was being discussed, suddenly, one of the professors from the Acting department, stood up to defend Mr. Alter in a very perverse manner..The professor complained that students break the lock of the studio and ‘couples’ sleep in the air conditioned room. He went on to add that if this is what they have to do then why not rent a room in a lodge? When we rubbished this and raised objection to the kind of language and this very grave allegation that is a character assassination of the entire student body, we were conveniently branded ‘goons’.

When you hear a teacher, that too one who teaches acting where body conduct is seen beyond sexuality passing such vulgar remarks on students, revulsion at their intellectual bankruptcy is the only emotion evoked inside. As per them, a girl and boy coming out of a studio de facto means they have engaged in a sexual act. It’s so regressive for an acting teacher who himself very well knows that students do rehearsals and practice at late hours in studios to speaks like this, and that too in an academic council meeting.

The entire Academic Council, including female members sat as mute spectators to all of this. When I lost my cool at the words that were being spoken and tried to oppose them, they silenced me. Ugliness prevailed in the conference hall and I lost all my hope of anything fruitful coming out of this meeting after that. I even packed my bag to walk out but somehow sat down again to listen to the finishing touches of the grand plan.

Make Money While The Students Suffer

ftiiOne of the members of the council who has a management school background presented how FTII can generate its own revenue with a corpus fund from ex-students, thereby helping the institute‘s infrastructure, student welfare etc. He also gave a long talk on how FTII can work as an incubator for entrepreneurship and exchange of business ideas in art and media. Forgive me, but it sounded like a rhetorical pitch for campaigns like ‘Startup India’ and ‘Skill India’ of the BJP, presented in a nuanced fashion. And the funniest part of all of this is after he finished, everybody in the council was in awe as if they had seen ‘Pather Panchali‘ for the first time.

Thundering applause followed and I just went numb. Anger and helplessness came over me. Seeing in front of your eyes the place rotting and not being able to stop it, it was as if we were non- existent in the meeting. FTII is one institution where students have always had equal say even in policy matters, but today we were treated like a nuisance in the council meeting. Complete exercise of power and arrogance was on display and we were clearly out numbered. Our voices didn’t have any value except for bureaucratic minutes.

What It Means To ‘Learn’ Your Craft

The kind of learning that FTII, even without any structured pedagogy, has somehow managed to maintain is holistic learning with a lot of rigour where an individual student learns not just from the hours spent in classrooms. Our learning goes on 24/7. From the screenings in the Main Theatre to the hours spent in the canteen discussing the films watched. By practising the pan and tilt in the morning and the sunlight which may fall on your face while walking to the tapri to have chai.

To those who want to jump at this and say that’s an ‘elitist’ argument, I want to say that learning about art, aesthetics, honing a craft and working on a skill required in an industrious activity such as film making requires a lot of rigour. It makes us appreciate the hard work that goes into the collective social act of film making. It leaves no place for any sense of elitism as it ends the alienation a man feels from another fellow human being and his surroundings.

I might sound like a romantic at this point and to some my arguments might sound stupid in its approach, but when you hear people selling you the Credit System quoting Noam Chomsky and Paulo Freire, what else do you expect. In times like these, rational arguments are laughed at and labelled backward. They try to fool us with their unintelligible half-baked rhetoric that suggests that by the mere implementation of the new syllabus our institution will become like institutions in America!

These people find the idea of ‘learning’ as we see it at FTII problematic. They tell us: “But an institution cannot function with ideals alone. There needs to be a structure. Discipline has to be implemented.” But the hypocrisy is that when the argument was turned towards the integrity and credibility of teachers themselves, the person giving us the sermon on moral values would comfortably say, “No no… how can you question your teachers.”

This is the classic hypocrisy of trolls that we see every day in our country. For them, some things are literally holy cows – sacrosanct to the extent of being unquestionable. Unfortunately for them, we don’t think that a human being is infallible. And that’s exactly where the difference lies. When we talk about values, our ethics are questioned. We are seen as an immoral and arrogant bunch of people who are just vacationing in this place. No one is allowed to question their values and ethics in turn.

Lights Out Down On Democracy

When the meeting began, it was very structured and planned as if like a theatre production. Everybody knew what the other person would say. They had paperwork, ‘logic’ (read gibberish) and pragmatic answers for all the questions. My initial scepticism on seeing the perfection in the setup was proven true. A well-orchestrated drama of pushing an anti-student and neo-liberal idea of change was clearly the agenda. This is what we had anticipated and had gone on strike against in the first place. Some section tried to confuse the mass calling of our struggle as elite and neo-brahminical. It was never about some moral stand on Mr. Chauhan’s B-Grade cinema, nor was it about the idea of ‘merit’. The entire debate was made into a debate of mediocrity vs excellence by the Ministry with their media cohorts.

Now Mr. Chauhan doesn’t even know what’s happening here. He doesn’t have any say. Brahminical Hindutva agenda is being pushed everywhere in the country, including cultural and educational institutions. Be it HCUJNU, TIFR, APSC or IIT Madras. In our campus the modus operandi is a little nuanced but to a discerning eye it becomes very apparent. Right now, they aren’t introducing subjects to cleanse the very thought of critical thinking but a methodology. And always the fascist forces have worked hand and glove with corporates to push their agendas. It is a part of a bigger plan not just about centralisation of power in the hands of corporate or homogenisation identities but also paving the way for the imperial corporate powers to rule the world and especially a third world country like ours to become lifelong servants of those powers. As we all know how WTO-GATS had its way with the cuts in UGC Fellowships.

Picture Credit: FTII Wisdom Tree
Picture Credit: FTII Wisdom Tree

Oppression Breeds Resistance

The nature of the problem faced by the extreme right-wingers of our country when it comes to FTII is specific. They can’t fiddle much with the syllabus because like it or not, most of the film theories have come from the Soviet Union and Europe. Most of them if not politically, at least ideologically have been Left inclined. One will have to teach the works of Sergei Eisenstein in a film school. There’s no way you can avoid him. So they are trying to curtail the freedom of thought and expression through market forces where a naïve community of students with no socio-political consciousness will be bred. And slowly but steadily private players will completely take over the place one day and the government can wash their hands off any responsibility.

As many of us know, that’s the current situation in the country where a fascist force is trying to divide us in the name of class, caste and religion. What they fail to understand is that oppression breeds resistance. We have resisted, and will resist this with all our capacity. Art has a function in the society more than just being crass entertainment and corrupting sensibilities as what most of the Bollywood cinema does.

FTII as a space gives one the possibility to learn and practice our craft as visual storytellers. The trees on campus, people who help us in our work are all equally a part of our eco system of learning. If cutting trees to build new classrooms with glass panels is the idea of development, then we don’t need that development. It’s not excess wealth which brings in progress but the indomitable energy and resourceful intelligence of students.

Our dear friend Rohith (Vemula) correctly said that our immediate identities have been reduced to a vote, to a number. Here at FTII we are being reduced to a credit in a system. But we will never give up because our politics challenges those who seek to determine our destiny.