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A visit to the shrine of film-making

An afternoon at the FTII with alumni Jaya Bachchan and the late Kundan Shah

Jaya Bachchan in a still from ‘Mili’.
Jaya Bachchan in a still from ‘Mili’.

On the memorable afternoon I spent at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, earlier this month—I was there for a tribute to the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee—two moments stood out. The first was chatting with the director Kundan Shah under the FTII’s beloved Wisdom Tree, just a few days before he died.

Shah, with whom I had been acquainted ever since I worked on a book about his film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in 2009, had looked quite fit for his 69 years, and the news was shocking. In hindsight, however, I wonder if he seemed so spry, alert and youthful that day because he had entered a time machine and been transported back to the campus where he had once spent many happy times. The years seemed to fall off his face when, over cups of evening tea, he gesticulated and theorized with the zest of the 21-year-old film student who imagines he will change the world through cinema.

The other moment was a split-second one. I was sitting in the front row of the main auditorium when Jaya Bachchan, walking up to the stage, bent down quickly to touch the steps in obeisance. Most of us are, understandably, sceptical of the things celebrities say and do in public arenas, but I didn’t get the impression that Bachchan was doing something for effect. It was an almost matter-of-fact gesture, and felt like a private communion between an artist and a space that was sacred to her. Later, during her session, she referred to the FTII as her matrubhoomi and called the years she had spent there the happiest of her life.

This discussion, featuring her and the film-maker and FTII alumnus Vishnu Mathur, was delightful because it didn’t seem in the least bit rehearsed: They contradicted each other when it came to a specific reminiscence, there were little detours and casual pauses, the way you would expect in a private, nostalgic conversation between two friends. They recalled persuading the celebrated archivist P.K. Nair to let them attend the screenings he held for himself at night, spoke of the awe they felt when giants like Satyajit Ray visited the institute—and how deflated a group of wannabe directors became when they earnestly asked the great man why he had used so many trolley shots in Charulata, and he replied in his sonorous voice: “Well, I had just bought a new trolley."

Bachchan mentioned hearing about a new film Hrishikesh Mukherjee was making. She had become intrigued by the title (Guddi), and had wanted to do it. She said she had sulked when she heard that another young actress had been cast. “Moushumi Chatterjee ko le liya (They cast Moushumi Chatterjee)! I know I can do better!" she said, mimicking her child-voice of ages past, and puckering her lips in the manner so familiar from her more impish roles.

It all felt so egalitarian. Shah was part of what we call the Cinema of Struggle of the 1970s and 1980s, making a small film on a budget of Rs7 lakh, taking favours from friends, relying on the cooperation of former classmates who were struggling just as hard to keep their heads above water. Bachchan, on the other hand—notwithstanding her association with the grounded, middle-class movies of the 1970s—is, for obvious reasons, a member of a more exalted circle in Mumbai filmdom, and a higher-profile personality. Yet, at the FTII, there was not the slightest gap between the two.

Later, I wandered around the campus, gaped at the legendary Prabhat Studios and the ancient equipment housed in it. I saw the—now dry—Shantaram Pond where scenes from films such as Sant Tukaram (1936) had been shot. For a critic, accustomed to watching films as finished products, the experience of coming face-to-face with the mechanics of the process—seeing the rusty raw materials and deserted settings up close—is always a little humbling, and melancholia-inducing too.

Researching Jaane Bhi... years ago, I had collected plenty of fun anecdotes about the making of the film. The conversations with the crew made me feel like I had been there when it all came together. But there was something much more immediate about being at the place where the seeds of these careers—and so many others—had been sown. To wander around the shaded woods where Shah had filmed a few scenes of his zany, dialogue-less diploma short Bonga. Or the part of the campus where the opening scene of Guddi was shot, simply because Bachchan—after she got the role she coveted—had requested “Hrishi-da" to shoot just one scene in her matrubhoomi.

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