Film studies as an elective course at IIT-M has evoked a tremendous response from engineering students.

“Film is hard to explain, because it is so easy to understand,” film scholar Christian Metz had once said. In a country such as ours, where cinema is largely seen as a means of entertainment, everyone has an opinion on films, and more importantly, film stars. Film studies, therefore, is often weighed down by the urgency of lending “respectability” to the course. Thus we have courses with titles such as ‘Literature and cinema’ and ‘Representation and Cinema’ where films are mainly discussed as vehicles of social issues.

This brings us to the question: Is film studies a serious discipline? At an international level, yes it is, absolutely. In fact, courses in film studies are getting increasingly specialised, and include sci-fi cinema, monsters in cinema, cinema of and about the west Asia, film sound, screenwriting, and even courses on specific actors/filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn and Daniel Day-Lewis and the Irish actor’s role in bringing American history on screen.

Film studies at IIT?

When I introduced film studies as an elective course in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras, the major objective was to introduce students from various engineering streams to what is considered to be the “best” in world cinema. The response from the first batch comprising BTech students was very enthusiastic but then a teacher’s responsibility increases if the course is popular. Therefore, instead of aiming for easy popularity, by discussing the works of very established names (Hitchcock, Godard, Ray/Ghatak, Bergman, Bunuel, Cronenberg, Wong karWai, Fellini), I tried to introduce those filmmakers who in spite of their brilliant works, remain largely unknown to a non-specialist audience.

When my colleagues from other colleges/universities seek my suggestion about revamping existing syllabi in film studies courses offered at their institutes, my advice is — learn by trial and error, make a mental note of what works for your class, at the same time, do not play safe just because something has worked successfully for a while.

Direct interactions

No theory can be successful if not balanced with praxis of the discipline. We had several eminent speakers such as director KV Anand, editor Sreekar Prasad and actor Revathy who talked about cinema. Karl Bardosh, Professor of Film Studies, TISCH, NYU, spoke to us about cell phone cinema through video conferencing, along with several international experts on sound, animation and documentary films.

Our eminent guests in recent times also include film critics and historians such as that master storyteller — Randor Guy, who enthralled the audience with his recollections of the personalities from Tamil film industry. In October 2012, poet novelist columnist Jerry Pinto delivered a series of lectures over a period of three days and shared his experiences of writing the biographies of Leela Naidu and Helen.

Workshops

As part of our objective of synergizing industry and practical aspects of filmmaking with academics, we have been collaborating with film personalities. For instance, in 2009, we teamed with Dr Kamal Haasan for Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop. This was a huge event in terms of magnitude and the interest it generated among cinephiles. The five-day workshop included interactive talks by K. Balachander, Shekhar Kapoor, Rakeysh Mehra, Rituparno Ghosh, Atul Tiwari and K. Hariharan, with French screenwriter director Jean-Claude Carrier and American screenwriter David Scarpa.

In 2010, we conducted a six-day international screenwriting-cum-conclave on filmmaking with Canadian collaboration, in which Dibankar Banerjee, R. Balki, Santosh Sivan, Jaideep Sahni, Shimit Amin, Nasser, Nagesh Kukunoor, Saurabh Shukla, and Tamil film directors Vishnuvardhan and CS Amudhan, among others.

And this was followed by a 10-day filmmaking workshop in 2012, where faculty members from FTII, Pune, and LV Prasad Institute, Chennai, conducted sessions on various aspects of filmmaking such as screenwriting, direction, cinematography, editing, sound and set designing.

A highlight of this event was that the participants produced several five-minute shorts, working in groups using 5D cameras. This time around our experts included Rohan Sippy, Anurag Kashyap, Sriram and Sridhar Raghavan, Habib Faisel, Ravi K Chandran, Krishna DK, editor Anthony and Tamil directors Vetrimaaran and Thyagarajan Kumararaja and writers Suresh-Bala.

These workshops have been immensely successful with active participation by the B.Techs and students of MA of IIT-M, who volunteered and interned on these projects. Some of the IIT-M students have made shorts on socially relevant issues such as plight of domestic workers in Chennai. Perhaps following in the footsteps of engineers-turned filmmakers such as Nagesh Kukunoor and Jaideep Sahni, we have examples of BTech students pursuing sound design at New York University, and some even applying for courses in film direction at various film schools.

So is there a need to include film studies in our syllabi? Well, I would have certainly attended one if I had a chance to!

The writer teaches drama, film studies and popular culture at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian institute of Technology-Madras.