The trouble with film education

A film school had been on Subhash Ghai’s mind for a long time. A Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate who came into films to act, Ghai ended up becoming a director of some of Indian cinema’s most successful films — Hero, Karma, Karz among them. When the IPO bug bit the industry in 2000 — Ghai’s Mukta Arts too raised Rs 100 crore. A part of this, Rs 23 crore, was for ‘an integrated studio cum research and training institute’, going by the prospectus.

In Distress: Whistling Woods International founded by Subhash Ghai is the largest film school in Asia and among the top 10 in the world, but neither the Indian or Maharashtra government thinks it is worth standing up for

When the money was raised, Ghai scouted for land and settled on a piece in Panvel, on the outskirts of Mumbai. The story goes that when the managing director of Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation (MFSCDC) heard about it, he told Ghai to come to Film City. That is how Mukta Arts and MFSCDC ended up in an 85:15 joint venture. The idea was to “develop talent to make films for the global market,” says Ghai.

By all accounts, the eight-year old Whistling Woods International (WWI) is a thumping success. It is the largest film school in Asia and among the top ten in the world, going by a Hollywood Reporter ranking in 2010. In the same year WWI became the youngest film school to be recognised as a full member of Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinéma et de Télévision (CILECT), a global association of film schools. There are only 150 members of CILECT out of a global total of over 3,000. WWI has more than 1,000 alumni out there in the global and Indian media industry. Some have been part of international projects like Life of Pi and Mission Impossible IV. Others are in firms such as Disney India, DreamWorks, Balaji Telefilms and others.

But WWI, which took six years, and Rs 100 crore, might just shut down or morph into something else by July 2014. In the coming weeks the Mumbai High Court is set to hear WWI’s review petition on the land imbroglio it is caught in. If it decides that WWI has to return the land it is built on, then its options are limited. That is because sitting as it does in Film City, with the entire film, television, music and entertainment industry within a 15-kilometre radius, WWI is part of an ecosystem that is impossible to recreate. Its location and Ghai’s connections ensures that the who’s who of the industry form the faculty for WWI.

There is Shyam Benegal, Shabana Azmi, Anjum Rajabali and Vishal Bharadwaj, among others.

WWI’s understanding of setting up a film school and the pedagogy around it is now much in demand. The result has been several tie-ups with foreign universities and even the setting up of a campus or two aboard. In September this year the Bradford College-WWI Film School opened in at Bradford, UK, with courses on film and animation. A joint venture with Nigeria-based Udemba Group will open the African Film and TV Academy (AFTA) in Lagos in 2014.

By all accounts the WWI imbroglio is more about the errors of ommission by the Maharashtra government. But because as Ghai puts it, “The film industry’s reputation is like that,” the government has distanced itself from a decision it took. If this was a medical or an engineering school, perhaps the reaction may have been different. WWI’s governing council is headed by Anand Mahindra who has been vocal about supporting it.

Another governing council member Kiran Karnik, the former head of NASSCOM points the obvious, “A school like WWI is a need in a country with such a large audio visual industry.”

India has one of the most robust and resilient film industries in the world. Unlike China or France, India has no quotas, no restrictions on foreign films. Yet Hollywood forms just about 5-8 per cent of the box-office, a percentage that has remained constant. To become a truly profitable and world-class industry we do need to move from the disorganised chaos of the nineties to the corporatised, scalable business that film production, distribution and retail is becoming.

This scaling up needs trained people. Just like IIT or IIM produce world-class engineers and managers, WWI produces world-class technicians, writers, cinematographers, directors et al. But because these are part of the entertainment industry, they become less important. Yet the fact is that it is a double tax-paying industry, so why its manpower needs aren’t critical is not clear?

WWI was set up in order to feed this market’s need for people. It would be a pity if it can’t do that.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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