To look at education solely in terms of its utility is a narrow minded view. Arts and the humanities are as important as skill-based courses

A still from Uski Roti by Mani Kaul

“You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it.” – Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times

The government, we were told recently, may “either close FTII or transfer ownership to Bollywood” and other reports circulating in media in this regard do not come as a shock. This declaration of the government’s intent to privatise the Film and Television Institute of India is not a surprise considering the manner in which it has been making appointments and slashing funds from education, child welfare, health and culture. The truth is that governments no longer care for the arts and humanities. All they want to build are smart cities, bullet trains and digital networks by cutting down forests, displacing people and cutting down funds from the most vulnerable sections of society. What the government aims to build are stone lodges where people will have neither freedom nor imagination.

The shift from a knowledge-based education system to a skill-based one in the last twenty years has led to a steady decline in the state’s patronage of all those disciplines that are not utility oriented. Regrettably, the idea of utility itself is understood as short term use rather than enlightened, long-term self-interest which any society ought to have about itself. This is where the arts, culture and other disciplines of the humanities come into play for they not only provide depth and identity to a society but also what will endure through the ravages of time.

Lopsided comparisons

It is with great consternation that one looks at the publication of facts and figures in newspapers regarding the amount of money the government spends on each student of FTII and the lopsided comparison between an engineering student and an artist. It is almost as if the irritation and impatience the state feels towards institutes like the FTII or NSD arise not only because its spending on them does not directly translate into revenue for the state, but also from an attitude that considers such spending in the nature of a favour granted. Thus we are told with great vexation that 12 lakh rupees is the amount the government spends each year on an FTII student as compared to 3.5 lakh it spends on an IIT student. This figure itself is debatable and is not the correct estimate, because there are courses such as art direction, acting, screenplay writing and TV that are 2-year and 1-year respectively and do not have the same budget as the 3-year diploma course, which is the mainstay of the institute with an intake of just about 48 students every year.

In any case, mentioning these figures is like comparing apples and oranges. There are only two government-run film institutes with an intake of less than 150 students each year. In comparison, the IITs have about 10,000 seats. The FTII’s annual budget  is not more than Rs 20 crore, whereas the annual budget of IIT Bombay alone is in excess of Rs 100 crore. As of 2015 there are 18 IITs and 5 more will come up soon. Even this cursory comparison of the amount of money the government spends on an institute like FTII and one single IIT is enough to point out the double standards.

Over the years, successive governments have steadily cut funding to the field of humanities, art and culture. Every budget announces the opening up of new IIMS, IITs and AIIMS but hardly any arts or humanities colleges and universities. No doubt we need science and technology but we also need poetry and philosophy that serve no monetary purpose and whose worth cannot be measured in terms of revenue earned and losses made. As long as we are humans our needs will always be more than just satisfying our most basic requirements. One of the most insistent and persistent needs of all humans since the dawn of civilisation has been to understand the purpose and meaning of life itself. I doubt if any computer, however advanced can fulfil that need. We need songs, we need dance, we need stories, we need philosophy and we need cinema to fulfil our deeper creative and spiritual needs

Role of film in the life of the nation

In a democracy, education must be seen as a collective responsibility, an investment in the future, a future in which everyone regardless of caste, class, gender and race can participate. It is precisely for this reason that an institute like the FTII, which on the one hand promotes diversity of culture and on the other strives to represent all sections of the society, is important. It is only in an institute such as this (and other cultural institutes) that students from all sections of society – with diverse perspective but lacking in resources – can come and make their contribution in the fields of creative art and cinema. Otherwise these fields would remain the preserves of the wealthy, as is the case with private, and expensive, film schools.

It is in this light that we should understand and appreciate the role of an institute like the FTII and see it as a collective responsibility of the society towards its own future. Instead of treating it as a problem child with so many strikes in so many years (7 to be precise and not 39 as is being circulated), out-dated syllabus and other administrative woes. These are problems that can be tackled with sensitivity and generosity. The solution is not privatisation.

The FTII has played an important role in the cultural life of our nation. It has produced visionary directors, cinematographers, editors and sound designers; filmmakers who have shown us the tremendous aesthetic and social possibilities inherent in the art of cinema. And this was made possible because of the vision of the state regarding the role of arts and culture in society and an acknowledgement of its own role in creating centres that would attract talented young people from all across the country.
Somehow the erroneous line of thought that filmmakers from the institute are elitist and have not achieved popular success has gained traction over a period of time. This argument is not only deeply flawed but also patently inaccurate.

First, the institute has produced filmmakers who have made both mainstream as well as art films. Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Kundan Shah, Santosh Sivan, Raju Hirani, Sriram Raghavan, Subhash Ghai, David Dhavan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali are all from the institute. Not to mention renowned actors as Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, and Jaya Bachchan. More significantly perhaps a large number of editors, cinematographers, and sound designers working in the film industry are all from the institute. It is not a mere coincidence that Resul Pookutty an alumnus of the institute went on to win an Oscar for sound design for Slumdog Millionaire.

Secondly, this argument about elitism in art, especially cinema needs to be understood at many levels. It is a lazy and  dangerous argument that since the films of Kaul, Shahani, Gopalkrishnan and others do not resonate with the vast majority and have had a small audience, their eminence is somehow suspect. Such an argument not only juxtaposes popularity with artistic merit but shows little knowledge of the complex network of film distribution in India, largely controlled by commercial distributors. If despite this closed network of distribution certain filmmakers have been able to gain circulation through the limited channels of viewership available to them, then this is an example of their cinematic worth and not the opposite. Van Gogh, Gaugin, Seurat, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson received little or no recognition during their lifetime but does that make them any less significant today?

This is not to argue against popular art and cinema or to even show it as somehow lesser, but only to argue that in a democracy there should be space for both and that the state has a role to play in safeguarding plurality and diversity in art and culture. It cannot and should not forsake its role to private players. The FTII needs the continued support and patronage of the state as well as its goodwill, but the state too needs the institute to show that it understands the larger human need for creative arts and that this need is greater than the sum total of its differences with the films made at the institute, the agitating students and the larger film fraternity.

Vijaya Singh is a student at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune