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‘Balancing the Wisdom Tree’ traces work of women alumni from FTII

Culture‘Balancing the Wisdom Tree’ traces work of women alumni from FTII

In this interview, Gauri D. Chakraborty talks about the creative vision behind the book, the research that went into it and the challenges she had to overcome.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s Publications Division to mark the 60th anniversary of the Film and Television Institute of India, ‘Balancing the Wisdom Tree – An Anthology of FTII’s Women Alumni,’ edited by Gauri D Chakraborty, traces the journeys and work of women alumni from FTII since its inception. The pathbreaking book has three segments which include conversations between the alumni, personal reflections but, most importantly, it details the work of approximately 503 women who graduated from FTII between 1965 and 2016.
The book’s editor Gauri D Chakraborty is an alumna from the institution and she has also conceptualized it. Chakraborty is currently a professor of film at Bennett University. She is also a member of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) India Chapter.
In this interview, Gauri D Chakraborty talks about the creative vision behind the book, the research that went into it and the challenges she had to overcome, its relevance to the scholars of gender studies, among other things.
Q. Tell us about your book ‘Balancing the Wisdom Tree – An Anthology of FTII’s Women Alumni’. Also, tell us about the creative vision behind the book.
A. The book is a repository of the experiences of the women alumni who have been at FTII across six decades of its existence. From the first women graduate Parvati Menon who passed out in 1966 to the most recent batch of 2016, the book traces their journeys in three different segments. Segment 1 is conversations where women alumni across disciplines, years, experience are conversing with each other. The second segment is personal memoirs of the institution, and the third segment is composed of short bio notes of almost all women who have been students of FTII.
When I received this mail from my senior Reena Mohan about conceptualizing a book on women alumni, my perspective was very clear. It will not be a usual celebratory kind of work but a reflection of the similarities and diversities of the journeys that women take as they enter and exit the institution. It should emerge as a reference point for those who are researching in gender studies as well and give them a qualitative yes but also quantitative perspective to women being trained at this premier institution. Bhupendra Kainthola, the then director of FTII. had also suggested that the book contents should endorse the need for more girl students to be encouraged to use film as their medium or voice and the inspirational work being done by the Alumni will help in that direction. The book has been conceptualized to answer and also raise questions. It should trigger curiosity for young girls to enter this enigmatic and magical space of storytelling cross genres.

Q. What kind of research went into it?
A. Well for starters by drafting the concept, which was so large in its implication, I had ensured that the next few months would be rigorous and tough. I was fully aware that since all alumni are committed to their professions and so they would need time to get their thoughts together and start the process. In segment 1 with the envisioning of conversations, we had to get alumni together on a common platform to engage with each other. There had to be certain resonance in their thoughts, body of work, approach to the medium or politics. The pairing I think worked out very well. For example, three filmmakers Gowri Patwardhan, Bela Negi and Renu Savant who have trained at FTII in different batches converse about how they interpret space and time.
Each conversation aims at exploring some aspect of practice as well along with their journeys. Since it was the pandemic period, professionals were on a slight hold, and we got a good chance of them talking online. Next step involved transcription of this material. After that was the arduous journey of placing the bits and pieces in a seamless continuum. Reena Mohan supported the very delicate task of editing the language of the content.
For the personal memoirs, it was important to have diversity from all specializations and representation from across India and the world. Alumni were chosen based on their seminal work, path defying interventions and contribution to their discipline
Q. Which of the 500 plus female graduates have touched / inspired you the most and why?
A. Some inspired, and others with their amazing body of work bowled me over. Many of the alumni have traversed unique journeys while discovering the medium as professionals. Radha Saluja, an acting graduate from the 1969 batch and elder sister of Renu Saluja, not only inspired me but I was also touched by her old world charm and humility. I had seen Abha Dhuliya’s work as an actor but was amazed at her vision towards acting during the interview. Among the younger lot, Anjuli Shukla and Prerna Saigal’s oeuvres were worth discovering. Payal Kapadia received the Golden Eye award at Cannes when the book was in its final journey and her win was so special considering the intimacy that I had developed with her content in spirit. Mitakshara Kumar is another alumnus I discovered as the bio notes were being compiled.
Irene Dhar, Hemanti, Anuradha Singh, Pinky Brahma Chowdhury, Maheen Mirza were some other alumni whose distinct style of work and approach to the medium was unknown to me.
Here, I must also acknowledge that the book designer Anuj Malhotra really believed in the content of the book. This was critical to the presentation of the content. He has done an incredible job. The implementation by Publications Division was equally commendable.
Q. What kind of challenges did you have to deal with while writing the book? Are there any specific conversations / anecdotes that you would like to mention here?
A. When one is dealing with records of 60 years, challenges are expected. One challenge was to ensure that the specializations of the alumni are correct with their batch details. The records after 2000 were more or less streamlined. The other challenge was to ensure that content was vetted by contributors—about 80 of them. The biggest challenge though remained that the book seams like a seamless narrative which assimilates narratives exploring choice and voice.
Q. Why do you think it has taken so long for a comprehensive and well researched book on FTII female graduates?
A. Well, I can’t really comment on that. All I can tell you is that I wanted to figure out the number of women in the industry for a while. The book gave me a chance to at least cover one component of this space. FTII remains the premier and one of the oldest institutions for formal training and I am happy that at least this side of the documentation has been put into place. The book places on the table the numbers which are so contrary and revealing. In 60 years of FTII, only 15 women have been trained as sound technicians. I would like to probe more. Why are girls not opting for it? What are the career graphs of these alumni? I do know that Namita Nayak and Gissy Michael did make a remarkable contribution to this domain and it’s included in the book.
Q. How do you look at your book’s prospects as the go-to book for gender studies scholars?
A. When I started my journey in film studies in 2011 about the politics of representation of gender on screen; it all germinated from my introduction to the characters of Laila in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara (2011) and Vidya in Kahaani (2012). As a person from FTII, many questions arose about the claims of a rising number of women behind this emergence of women centric cinema. The first instinct as a researcher was to find out how many trained women in film actually make it to the industry to contribute as professionals in this world of creation and storytelling. Unfortunately, I found very limited texts to refer to and hardly any quantitative data.
When the prospect of compiling the work of women alumni from FTII was discussed, my first response was that it should include both qualitative and quantitative facets of the discourse. FTII has been one of the main formal training grounds for filmmakers. I think the book should be a must have for higher education institution libraries and archives which focus on the visual arts and cinema.

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