FTII has come to resemble a battleground: Will Anupam Kher's tenure be the same?

Gautam Chintamani

Oct,12 2017 15:20 28 IST

Ever since its inception in the early 1960s, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has had a long tradition of letting students have a say in what they learn. But the interactive nature of one of the world’s handful of state-sponsored film schools has continually declined. In the mid-1990s it reached to a point of standoff between students and the administration following a major restructuring of the course.

Since then strikes and protests have been a common sight.

Post mid-1990s nearly everything that happens at FTII is met with some form of disapproval primarily from the students, who for a while now believe that the system comes up with something or someone to keep a check on them. In fact, following a strike in 2000, Abhijit Majumdar, the then general secretary of the FTII Students Association expressed that it was “unfair to have fixed minds judging us constantly.”

Anupam Kher. PTI Image.

Barely 12-hours since the ‘action’ of his appointment as the new chairman of FTII, Anupam Kher’s elevation is being met with disapproval from the students of the institution on grounds both expected and bizarre.

American stand-up comedian Steven Wright felt that every action has an equal and opposite criticism. In Kher’s case, on the face of it, the students expressed how could Kher, who already runs a private acting school, Actor Prepares, head FTII? But more than that, Kher’s political leanings also seem to be a cause for their displeasure.

In a newspaper report Harishankar Nachimuthu, who headed one of its longest strike in the premier film institute’s history (139-days), to oppose the outgoing chairman Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment, said that for the students there is no difference between Chauhan and Kher, who is known to be to be a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kher’s credentials – a multi-faceted stage and acting career spanning nearly forty-years and over 500 films across India and the west with 8 Filmfare Awards and 2 National Film Awards besides numerous more — make him an ideal choice to head FTII. But they now seem forgotten, overlooked or brushed aside just because he praises the current Prime Minister.

No one cited the late writer UR Ananthamurthy’s ideology when he was appointed the chairman in 2005. Ananthamurthy had unsuccessfully contested for Lok Sabha in the 2004 elections and had expressly stated that his prime objective was to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even when he was given a second term as the FTII Chairman in 2008 his political affiliations never came up for discussion.

The FTII is an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of the Government of India, which appoints the chairman of FTII’s Governing Council, the apex body of the FTII. In its early days, secretaries of the Ministry Anwar Jamal Kidwai and S.M.H. Burney held the post of the chairman of the governing council and the former went on to establish the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, which is now called AJ Kidwai Mass Communication Centre.

During their opposition to the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman, FTII students had cited the examples of both Kidwai and Burney and had expressed that an I&B ministry secretary could be the chairman instead of Gajendra Chauhan.

But it’s not like Chauhan, who was arguably the worst choice to head the prestigious institute, was the only one to have a tumultuous tenure. Even seemingly great choices in the form of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Mahesh Bhatt or Mohan Agashe, who was the director of FTII in the early 2000s, met strife in some form or the other during their stints. It was Gopalakrishnan who had first suggested a revision of the syllabus that can be attributed as the fount of all troubles in FTII in the last two decades.

The suggestion to reduce the duration of all the specialisations (direction, cinematography, and sound recording) from three to two years in order to make the Institute more contemporary led to unrest that continued long after Gopalakrishnan left. He was succeeded by Mahesh Bhatt by the time the changes the implemented and the students went on a strike as they felt the two-year course was not good enough (they were supported by the teachers). Bhatt’s appointment was greeted with euphoria as it was felt that filmmaker would take things to the next level but after a brief period, he resigned in disgust when the students opposed changes and a suggested hike in the fee. Bhatt went on to label FTII as “a breeding ground for hostile attitudes against mainstream cinema.”

When Mohan Agashe was appointed Director in April 1998, once again things looked up, but when he proposed some structural changes in the course and even a bold one-year integrated course, the students went on a strike and demanded his head. Agashe felt chairman or directors were like “bulbs going off one after another” and instead of changing the bulb he felt the faulty wiring needed to be addressed. It is said that it was the students once again, who led to the ouster of the late Tom Alter, alumni heading FTII’s acting department in 2016.

The constant battlefield that the Film and Television Institute of India has come to resemble must be changed.

The person heading FTII can have great influence on how things function. In the past people like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Girish Karnad, Vinod Khanna and Saeed Akhtar Mirza have headed FTII and so has someone like an RK Laxman, who might not have had any direct connection with cinema, and in both cases, it’s their vision that rubbed off on students.

In an article that appeared in India Today in 1998, film critic Anupama Chopra wrote how RK Laxman in his speech to graduating students in 1976 said – “The problem is that good films make bad money and bad films make good money. So make good films that make good money.”

Similarly, had it not been for a Girish Karnad the institute would have rejected Om Puri based on his looks.

Irrespective of who is appointed there would be some joy and some disapproval but the fact remains that the students who pass through the gates end up becoming the measure to gauge the quality of any educational institute. In that aspect, FTII remains a premier institution thanks to its alumni, which includes some of the best talents in Indian cinema and television.

In the simplest terms Anupam Kher is a great choice to head FTII and the irony of him being a graduate of the National School of Drama (NSD), the institution because of which FTII decided to shut down its own acting course in 1978 before it was revived in the early 2000s, couldn’t have been scripted better.