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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Challenges of teaching in filmschools: A case study by Tanmay Agarwal (part 1/16)

SRFTI campus in late winter glory
The complete work reads better than a thriller with action, drama, suspense, laughter, tears, disruptions, suicide threats, eulogies, hosannas, epiphanies, catharsis, tragedy, comedy, close calls, near misses and a triumphant ending. But let me start with:



I had an opportunity to conduct a workshop at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata (SRFTI) for the second year students of Film Direction course. The workshop was on lens and lighting.
A new approach to second year course was adopted. Shooting a dialogue sequence was a demonstration by faculty till now. It was opened up for the students, to shoot on an individual basis.
Each student was to develop a short film script, out of which they would get to shoot and edit a scene or two. After the scripts were developed with the aid of faculty a series of workshops on camera, sound and editing were planned one after another. The students would shoot, edit and do the sound-post as part of the respective workshops. The idea was two fold.
One to give a refresher course in individual areas and two to raise the bar.
I was given a brief to teach lens and lighting. Besides if I could get them to work together, the previous few years proving disastrous with frequent fights between crew members.

The time frame was five days of workshop and ten days of mentoring ten projects as they are shot.

The following account is my version of the proceedings. It is in the form a chronicle. It offers insights into my thinking process. It is useful for teachers in general and teachers of cinema specifically. Students of cinema can find answer to many of their questions but the teachers and administrators in charge of film education will find a mirror to the situations they face everyday.
It is not meant to offend anyone. If it hurts the feelings of any of the people concerned, I apologize in advance.

It is peppered with references to the blogs of the events by the ten students who were part of the workshop.

There are some films and extracts online that are referred to. I am using the blogs and other reference material for academic purposes only.
A complete read through will be enriching to anyone who is interested as it offers multiple perspectives of the same events, making a multilayer discourse. It brings out the challenges in teaching students flush with youth in a liberal environment.



My gratitude to the faculty supervisor Subhadro Chowdhary, Associate Professor, department of Direction, SRFTI, who invited me for the workshop and stood like a rock through the thick and thin of an action packed saga.
A note of thanks to Prof. Amaresh Chakraborty, Head of department of Direction, SRFTI, for standing the ground. Whereas Shubhadro is an old friend and could be leaned upon, Amaresh really impressed me with his understanding of the situation and his follow through.
I will also like to thank Prof. Nilotpal Majumdar, Dean SRFTI, for his forbearance and wisdom.
I appreciate the faculty and staff that supported my efforts and others that at least stayed neutral. I will not name them like I will not name the others who did not support me. Just so they know, I am thankful to all of them.
I was disappointed with some of my peers from the faculty at SRFTI, who disrupted the workshop, without discussing their misgivings with me. Thankfully they did not prevail. I hope they along with the students from the batch assigned to the workshop who created the disruptions would introspect and come to terms with the events as they unfolded. To all of them I wish peace and happiness.

Tanmay Agarwal

Day 1
29 Jan 2015

Workshops to film students is a break from routine. At best a couple of them take it seriously, to the rest they are picnics. The students hold the the guest in regard, for he comes from the professional world, while the regular faculty is considered failures opting for cosy academic life. Since the guest taking the workshop is an external person, he could be taken for granted. The students shy from upsetting the regular faculty to avoid long term damage to their academic results. Saying which it should be kept in mind that the regular faculty is also treated shabbily albeit more discretely. It is a common refrain of visiting faculty to filmschools at least in India that the students consider themselves more knowledgable than the teachers, master of their domain and in charge of the institution. This feeling is fostered by weak administration and sadly weak teachers. There are exceptions to the rule both amongst students and faculty, like any other place.

Ah! Another workshop. “Lighting” and “Lensing”!! Bas yeh seekh jayenge toh bhencho* ban hi jayenge, Philim makers!! (translation: Soon as we learn lighting and lensing, by cuss-word, we will turn in to filmmakers)
Mainak Guha


As is a custom with me, I opened up by asking the students why were they there. As is customary most had no clue. The best some could come up with was for their love of cinema.
When I proposed that I was there to enjoy myself and would they like to do so, it sounded strange to them.

In my experience state run filmschools offer an environment that fosters extreme indiscipline and lackadaisical attitudes.
So I proposed some terms of engagement. This sets some self adopted ground rules that ensures attendance and attention. These are completely voluntary, yet inviolable. So the students are given ample opportunity to weigh them. Usually as in this case some students get it but most just tag along.

The terms of engagement are simple and importantly presented in this order:
1. Depositing cell phones at the beginning of a session.
2. Coming to sessions in time.
3. Waiting for the last one to catch up.
4. Blog the days events.

5. Be collectively responsible for 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Now this bunch had been together for more than a year and had developed their own prejudices about each other. Further each one believed that they were responsible while others were not. They were very reluctant and confused with such conditions that are otherwise taken for granted.

The challenge was to break this thought process that placed them above the group, since film making is a collective exercise. They had to see it as such and then take the responsibility of seeing the group function as one.

Now came all of our responses. "How can that be?", "Individuals have to take their own responsibility."…Sir replied with another question. "So, is film making an individual work or a team work?" And believe me, it hit so hard…we are all our "brother's keeper"s. I don't know in pursuit of what, I chose to forget this vital truth of life.
Soumee Biswas

Now that we agree that each one of us is pursuing happiness, we have to set out on this journey together. Together!!! Sir, Mr. Tanmay Agarwal, did you say together!!??
Sir, you had no idea how terribly we have failed to be together time and again. Some of us, especially me, at times find it so hard…As I break off a slender branch and get rid of the leaves I remember my grandfather's anecdote. The thinner the cane, the more the pain.
Hindol Deb

Then, we were asked for the punitive measures if somebody breaks this rule (the hind side of which is to learn how to work collectively and make collective decisions, take responsibility not only for oneself but also for the group of people one is a part of). Then, his punitive measures was mistaken as punishment and then as a joke.
Kirti Singh

After much hemming and hawing on their part, I proposed if they could come up with a penalty for not observing the ground rules. They were quite unimaginative, so I proposed if they would care for a caning. Severe as it sounded, they humored me. So off they went giggling to collect sticks to their taste. Once done they were asked to test them. A couple of them caned their palms tentatively. It was obvious to them that it was not serious. It was not.
I asked them to stack the sticks and take a picture to represent what the stick meant to them, fear, anxiety etc. On examining the result they just looked like sticks. So they got it that though they understood that an object can be shot as a metaphor but they were not skilled to do so.

See video:

Terms OF Engagement

Caning was never a solution to their problems so I proposed that the whole group loses the day if they fail to comply by the terms of engagement. They all agreed, partly out of relief, partly out of chutzpah.

Post lunch when we collected I asked them to switch off the phones and stack them together. Since they were not able to shoot an object to represent something else, I asked if they could shoot it to represent what it is. That is a stack of cell phones with nothing else. They went about the task but the results were still indifferent. The stack would look variously as a tall building, hard disks, PDAs etc. along with the surroundings, but never unmistakably like a stack of cellphones and just that. So far so good. They understood that after a year at film school they could not shoot a straight representational image, nor a metaphorical one.
I called the straight representation an apple for an apple and the metaphorical representation as apple for pears.

Then I asked them to shoot an object just so that the image looks beautiful. The object being any of the foot bridges around the campus, something that they have seen over and over. On viewing the results, it seemed that no one had really captured anything beautiful.

They were all images of the bridge. Except that they were sterile. In fact the one that they thought was good looking was one out of a lot of out of focus images taken by a fellow who was technically not so confident of himself.

This was instructive for it emerged that technical proficiency was not a necessity to beautiful images. The photographer also won the respect of the group, so far denied to him. However the inevitable conclusion was, forget the overt or covert meaning in an image, they were incapable of shooting it aesthetically. However to some students, this method of self discovery was too oblique. They wanted some spoon feeding.

With regard to camera, I didn’t learn anything new…the bridge, was there prominently in both the frames, but I failed to lend a character or “heart” to any of them.
Sreecheta Das

The difference in my approach was to keep their expected tutelage hidden behind real world issues. I kept technicalities at bay and talked of life and work connecting camera to it at a philosophical level. It was confounding to them as I wanted but compelling, again as I wanted.

The students were mostly grim about the fact that none of them remembered what focal length was. To my mind there were other pressing issues. But it confirmed my assumption that I had to start from the beginning.

I left them with couple of questions to answer.
1. Does the eye have variable focal length?
2. If so, how does the eye focus after a lens replacement surgery?

So that is where they stood at the end of day one. A little confused, a little haggard. Some charmed, but most suspicious. It got even more suspicious the next day. Lookout for that post.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kerala beckons

Chal Chaliye is invited to the competition section of 4th International Film Festival of Kerala. Festival dates are 31st July to 4th Aug, 2011 at Trivandrum.
Visit for details.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Of FTII Bashing

This post appears in its original context on Passion For Cinema,
in response to Jaideep Verma's observation on FTII.
Let me begin by saying that FTII is not an external entity. All of us who have a “passion for cinema” and that is important, are part of it. Let any one deny it. I have observed this fraternity closely for fifteen years and have found no reason to the contrary. Like any institution of higher learning it produces amongst others, people more advanced in skills (what you call craft), more advanced in thoughts and more advanced in artistry.
All reach the first level some the second and very few the third. These are the sorted out, well developed, rounded off yet mavericks with unique voice and an address system easy on the ear. The institute does not produce them. Though the institute helps for sure.
They are everywhere.
As far as the institute is concerned its charter explains the sarkari expectation very clearly. To quote its vision statement,
‘To impart technical education and training in the sphere of films and television’
That, it is a training institute as far as the government is concerned is obvious from the fact that it still awards post-graduate diploma to its students and not a degree. For all it’s posturing, this opening sentence has kind of summarized the expectations of the state sponsor to me, since I first read it in my student days.
FTII is a governmental institution and its direction is determined by the state. The state has very limited interest in promoting quality in arts, at least it seems to me.
That is if you are arguing for art.
For the commerce end of cinema FTII alumni are addressing admirably.
The art end you are laughing away.
Lets get on the same page about art and technique before we progress. These so called technicians are exceptional because they are artists. The artists as are generally understood in film parlance, namely the actors and the artiste, the big name at the end of the credits, the directors are so mediocre because they are mostly technicians. That is the state of affairs in general. Not just in films. Pure original thought, new invention, breaking borders, jaw dropping, unique, rooted, fresh are terms hard to relate to most endeavors post independence. I am left wondering myself, what more will it take to move us. Nothing touches us any more. How are we going to bring around a revolution? I am mostly alarmed at the apathy of the youth.
My wife just told me of this colleague of hers. She is six months pregnant, travels from Kanjurmarg to Kharghar on local. Doesn’t get a seat before Nerul. Why? Because young college girls look at her, look at the tummy, then look out of the window. This is the font of the feminine. If there is apathy here, god save the rest of us. Boys I can relate to, girls we are all looking at you. With what are you as a film-maker going to address this lot.
I guess if bribes to party in power on national television are passé to the people then we are close to the nadir.
Anyway it makes me squirm every time they say at awards ceremony how the all the artists were a charm and how the techies pitched in too. Such a mistaken understanding of the terms.
Now the expectation that a state institute with an indifferent attitude will produce the voice of the India without being its mouthpiece is a pipe dream.
Like any mix of people, FTII produces its exceptional directors along with also rans. Trust me there are many of both. They have to operate in a field that is run by the producer/distributor.
A little understood fact is that a film speaks the producer’s language. It is a misconception that the film is the director’s medium. In this scenario’s the question is why are we as a country not producing the right producer’s.
The writing on the wall is clear. When the debate of what is the role of the state in public enterprise is settled on commercial terms, then everything travels to the market. And in the market what sells is “Race”, no matter how passionate we get about cinema. So when social subjects used to sell we had those kind of films supported by private producers, when the state sponsored film making, those kind of film got made, now the state(NFDC) hedges one third of the film. So it is going to be one third NFDCesque and the rest marketable. Or we have the couple of crore vehicle which yours if you can bring it in within budget and time and if you have a sellable face. Who needs the story. To address the market we have the Vidhu Vinod Chopra and David Dhawans and now the Raghvans but I will be darned if any of the FTII kind can come up with the masterpiece or the marketpiece by the Abbas Mustan duo. Let me offer an answer, most of us feel could solve many of your concerns. The answer is distribution. Something that the state can do and should do. More than the production the independent voiced director does not find an avenue for exhibition in our country. The state can hardly break the producer/distributor hegemony. But it can provide a stage for voices that sing a different tune. Voices you want to hear. Then let the public decide. Right now a director faced with a complete denial by the market if his voice does not fit an agenda. This is the state’s true role. To encourage, support and publish plural, multilingual extraordinary attempts. That is building soft power. That is building state equity.
The best thing about FTII is the proximity to Film Archives. You take away the campus, you take away the staff, you take away the teachers, just leave the gear and the archive vaults, and the seniors. This is the mix that does the real teaching. The result is transformative. For you taste what cinema could be. And that is why there is a strong bonding between the FTII alumni. We are all stranded in a bewildering world with only the hope of one understanding the other. Sometimes the FTIIan appears unapproachable therefore. It is not so.
Well back to the transformation. It can be a story, it can be visual treat, it can be an aural delight, it can touch you, provoke you, stroke you but more than that it changes you. It is magical and there in lies the whole charm, for not many things in life allow you to touch or stroke or provoke anyone into anything.
And time and time again you have to see it being murdered in film and TV.
Now that I mention TV, I do not understand what is the fuss about its evaluation. Surely it is the pits. Working in that medium is a soul sapping experience as is watching it. It can be great but they are not going to spoil us now. Are they. Kieslowski did not cut the grade till he was thirty eight in an environment where his director friends, all well established by then rooting for him. And have we seen any channel pick anything close to Decalogue here or elsewhere since then. “Art form borrowed from your own life”, sounds like Martian to me. Who wants a slice of reality when I want to sleep with dreams of jewellery ‘she’ wears to bed. Meaning TV is about aspirations not inspiration or reality or anything vaguely remindful of it. Reality is Big Boss or sensational and ad embalmed news. That too rehashes from phoren TV. Originality in TV is Balaji.
This snobbery about the TV is well founded if you think. The entire range of media especially TV feeds on film. It’s not just the film screenings which fill airtime of channel after channel, it is the interview, the inaugurations, the life style, the gossip, the backstage et al which take up the rest. That too with the insipid, limp, sorry films that are the bulk of their fascination.
So to your point about the “simple story”.
To quote David Byrne of Talking Heads speaking of his compositions, “The words are there to make them listen to the music”.
There is this whole myth about the story as being the thing. Some kind of magic solution to our ills. The notion that we have the ‘technicians’, ‘artists’ and resources, get a solid script and hey presto. I take that with an overdose of salt. For one, story is not necessarily the conveyor of whatever that a film is trying to convey.
It is an audio-visual medium with its own codes. The ones who have understood have been crying themselves hoarse over it.
For one, my favourite films don’t have a story that will stand the scrutiny of the script whetters of any of the film banners.
A poor brahmin family in a village. A boy, a girl, a father, a mother and a grand old aunt. Episodes around rebuke and deprivation of the kids. The father leaves the scene for a long spell in search of better prospects. The aunt dies. The girl dies.
Father returns to take the balance of the family with him.
But brother can you take your eyes of this film after Ray adds his “atmosphere” to it.
I will come back to atmosphere later.
You mentioned Kieslowski. Short film about love, Double life of Veronica, any Fellini, Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, Mirror, actually most of them, Bunuel, un Chien Andalou if you take it to the extreme are films with slim stories. Fitzcarraldo I forgot. Total mastery. Story of a man wanting to build an opera in colonial South America. So much for motivation. His solution- Get the money by transporting rubber, a prized commodity in that time, by ship down an estuary. So far so good. But first he has to cross a hill with the ship. Trust this film to Yash Chopra or Farhan Akhtar.
Know what I mean when we say atmosphere.
Another example when the mention of Yashji and Ahktar saheb has come up. This up for scrutiny but according to industry gossip Javed saheb was more than a tad disappointed with the final reproduction of the scene as he with Salim saheb had written for Deewar. You know the one under the bridge. What do you have? I have Ma. Well if you are wondering why quote a scene which is practically a celebration of the Hindi commercial, then the written scene suggested the bridge as a metaphore, the half shadows from which Amitabh appears a a metaphore etc. etc. What you see is a literal translation not a cinematic flight. No atmosphere.
Yet the scene works. Power of the writing. So this is a double sided argument. Bottomline stories and storytellers don’t grow in institutes. We need people with a voice and something to say. People who understand the sum total and are wanting to understand some more. Extremely short supply.
For this atmosphere is that elusive mis en scene. The absolute sum total. The total which includes the interesting/not interesting story.
So when The FTIIan sees it being misunderstood or murdered he takes it just a wee bit better than the average Joe. Then he lets fly.
So accept my apologies for the bad behaviour of the cameraman. He/she might just have been too overcome/undiplomatic/juvenile. Hard to digest he was unkind. The AD, FTII or otherwise is a sorry case. Boss don’t know what to do with them myself. Know any with their head screwed right and knowing their job, you know the works, do tell me. By the way FTIII does not make a good AD. There is no formal/informal training. Yet some are great. Caveat Emptor.
Lets leave this train of thoughts with this little lament that your references to individuals on your team was ungainly in an otherwise cogent piece. Purely because they were your team. You did not spot them right early on or something happened, it’s all your private education. Can’t label an institution on that basis. You know if I opened up with the bad behaviour of practicing directors, FTII or otherwise, it will fill up this server and next.
This moderated critique of FTII that they are good at technique but stink in their attitude, some are great most are lost is like saying Muslims are bigots but some of my best friends are Muslim.
When I read it, I said to myself that this may sound combative, but let me reassure you it is coming with an overdose of love. Really there is a shortage of leaders who can show the way. The path has to be created and anyone can be that path breaker. Write some fine stories, pick the right guys and make some great movies. We will all be there to help you in the process and cheer you when you speak with that clear, sorted out, rounded off, maverick, unique voice.
A word about the genius complex. Some one corrected me a while back. That there is nothing like a superiority complex. There is only one complex and that we all know too well. It is just that life is different if you have seen through the bullshit. It just leaves the people on the other side wondering what the heck are these jokers smiling about. A bit like the cows from Gary Larson’s, The Far Side.
Welcome to the film fraternity. Tons of success to your new film.
Tanmay Agarwal
PS: Your mail did incite a debate on the wisdomtree group(E group of FTII alumni). What happened there is another story, but simultaneously another debate was going on about using GraFTII as a suffix after our names in the fashion of A.C.E. or W.I.C.A. etc. It could not come to a unanimous conclusion. Many of us were scared of being looked at as exclusivist worst elitist.
FTII is a national treasure like IIMs and IITs. It is a pool of resources for all. Use it.
FTII needs all the support it can get to safeguard our collective artistic pursuits. It needs policy appraisal on a regular basis and quality input from the highest quarters. Help it.
For like the Smoking Blues, ‘It is what you make of it’.