Friday, February 10, 2012

Subhash Ghai, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Whistling Woods film school

I taught a module at Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods International film school (WWI) during the first two and a half years of its existence, and therefore have some insight into its current troubles. The Bombay High Court just held that Vilasrao Deshmukh, while Maharashtra's Chief Minister, transferred land in Goregaon illegally to WWI. The court has told the school to return unused land immediately, and built-up land once the all current students have graduated. If the Supreme Court upholds the High Court's verdict on appeal, Bombay will return to the peculiar status of being a major film producing city without a proper film institute.
One thing I can say with certainty, having seen the functioning of WWI at somewhat close hand: profit was not the primary driver behind the school's creation. Ghai obviously had a dream of establishing a world class institute, and put together a great board of trustees and well-qualified administrators and faculty. While I don't care for the design of the main building, generous amounts of money were poured into campus construction. WWI was, and is, a long way from the many cramped, ultra-utilitarian sites that pass off as film schools in Bombay.
A serious film school needs an extensive campus. Property rates being what they are, it's hard to imagine an educational institution of the WWI kind being financially viable if the founders have to pay market price. At that kind of rate, all we will get is an extension of the soulless residence - office - shopping complex mix that has driven the growth of North Bombay.
If we accept that a good film school would be a fillip to Bombay's television and movie-producing industry, and we agree that some kind of state grant is required even for a private film school to be viable; what should leaders look for in potential investors? Obviously, a track record in film, and a commitment to investing significant private resources rather than living off the government's land. I can't think of too many people more qualified than Subhash Ghai to undertake such a venture.
Of course, one could imagine an alternate scenario, where property prices weren't kept sky high by collusion between builders and all levels of the administration; where there weren't a whole lot of asinine restrictions on buying and selling land; and where schools could be set up without years of petitioning and lobbying.
In the situation as it presented itself circa 2000 AD, however, I don't believe Vilasrao's Deshmukh's grant of cheap land to Subhash Ghai was such a terrible decision. Certainly there's no proof that Deshmukh profitted in any way from the move. There are, of course, other views possible about this matter, and my friend Paromita Vohra has taken a harsher line in this column for Sunday Mid-day.
WWI, unfortunately, faced a number of obstacles from its inception, including some of its own creation, as a result of which it has never performed to capacity. To begin with, there was a conceptual contradiction at the heart of the school, symbolised by its name. The 'International' in WWI suggested Subhash Ghai wanted to create an institution that would attract foreign students as well as Indians. The first executive head of WWI, an American named Kurt, was charged with setting up a cosmopolitan syllabus and world-class systems. But this effort was undercut by the 'WW' part of WWI. Which international student would take seriously a school that called itself 'Whistling Woods'? The only people who would be attracted by a name as cheesy as that were those who thought Bollywood films were the cat's whiskers. It was these Bollywood-lovers who flocked to the institute. The few foreigners who did enroll were tempted to drop out before completing the course.
Having spent a lot on construction, equipment and staff (Kurt was paid something like a crore per year, I was told), WWI charged high fees, and found it tough to fill all available seats. With supply outstripping demand, all selectivity went out the window. Kurt wanted to admit mainly graduate students, but plenty of 10+2 s made the cut each year. Film schools depend on a balance of direction, cinematography, editing, sound design and acting students, but there was no way to ensure such balance. One batch I taught had over a dozen male acting students and only one female. Another cohort, if I remember right, had twenty wannabe directors, only three or four editors to cut their assignments, and a lone sound guy.
Most of the students who joined were completely uninterested in Pasolini and Tarkovsky, leave alone the art history that I taught. The very fact that a module called IALC (International Art, Literature and Culture) was part of the compulsory syllabus shows the split between the 'International' side of WWI and the dominant 'Whistling Woods' side. Since the payoff in teaching, as far as I'm concerned, lies mainly in the response of students, I soon tired of the trek to Film City. It's true there were four or five youngsters in each batch who appeared interested in what I was saying, but the vast majority were visibly bored, and I couldn't blame them. If I were an actor eager to get a start in Bollywood, I wouldn't want to spend my time hearing about differences in style between Akbar-period miniatures and Shah Jahan-period ones; or between baroque and neo-classical painting.
I cut down on my WWI lectures a few years ago, and then left the Faculty entirely, but Prabodh Parikh, who handles the Literature side of IALC and is far more committed to, and passionate about, teaching than I am, has persevered; I've gone in for the occasional guest lecture when he's asked. Since leaving WWI, I've met a number of my former students at poker games. Subhash Ghai's film school has yet to produce any notable actors or directors as far as I can tell, but it's spawned a fair number of successful No-Limit Hold'em players. "How are you, Sir?", they ask, when I first run into them. I hate being called 'Sir', and always begin courses by telling students to call me Girish, but few ever do. At the card table, though, I absolutely insist on being addressed by my first name, particularly since WWI grads are usually better at poker than I am.


FDM said...

I'm Federico, a cinematography graduated student from WWI.
I Remember your classes with nostalgia and joy; I still point You as one of the few teacher who actually had something to say in WWI.
I felt really sorry when I didn't see you coming back after 3 or 4 classes. I liked so much (if I remember correctly) the one about censorship and how you managed to divide the class between progressive and conservative people and how you pushed us to defend our positions and try to understand the topic.
Nothing like that has ever been done in WWI and nothing probably will ever been done.
Probably it depends a lot about the culture of this country and how nobody is taught to challenge intellectually the teacher and the colleagues, which actually is mostly consider inappropriate and can pull anger and resentment from them beacause they will feel you didn't give respect.
It's because of people like you that I still consider my experience in WWI and in India a good experience; I hope that this country will continue producing open minded people like you, and finally will get divorce from a tradition and and heritage which sometimes is an obstacle in the culture embrace which should driven the entire world.
Thank you SIR.

Girish Shahane said...

Federico, I remember you well too, and your inputs from the front row left. There were four or five students in every class who made WWI a worthwhile experience. Thanks a lot for your note, I appreciate it very much.

afatalblunder said...

Hello Sir, I jest gave an entrance test for WWI school for MBA and got selected. Now I just want to know that should I go forward to admission and do WWI guarantee any placement?

Girish Shahane said...

I have no idea, I'm afraid.