When should the government subsidise training filmmakers?

There is no case for government to subsidise FTII (and, for that matter, IITs and IIMs too)

One of the numerous controversies surrounding the Modi government’s appointments in the education sector revolves around a minor television actor being appointed the chairman of a government-run institute on the basis of his party, and perhaps ideological, affiliation. Students, alumni and many public commentators have opposed the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan on account of his weak acting credentials and lack of stature in the industry.

Mr Chauhan’s critics might be right. His defence — that he is being judged ahead of his performance — can also be taken at face value, not least in a country where “officially certified” graduates are unemployable, and great actors and film-makers need not necessarily be good administrators.It is not as if having great personalities running the film institute has prevented the Indian film industry from distinguishing itself through sheer mediocrity. Mr Chauhan does deserve a chance.

The Film and Television Institute of India is a government run institution. The elected government has the prerogative to appoint whoever it likes. If students and faculty do not like it, they can voice their protests, which the government ought to listen to. But if the government does not, or does not accept the criticism, then that should be the end of the matter. Students and faculty who cannot accept Mr Chauhan’s leadership can decide to quit. Whatever your politics, this is the right conduct in a republic. With apologies to John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, it is not the purpose of democracy to protect the people from the consequences of their electoral decisions.

However, the bigger issue is why is the Union government running a film institute and training actors and filmmakers with public funds? The economic argument is that the government can subsidise education that has large externalities, if there is an undersupply of such education. In other words, the reason to subsidise medical education (whether or not through government medical colleges) is that a doctor benefits society even when making money for herself. If there are too few doctors, there is a case for subsidising medical education. If there are too many of them, it doesn’t.

So do actors and filmmakers have large positive externalities? To the extent that entertainment is necessary for the well being of individuals and society, then it is possible to make a case that filmmaking ought to be supported with public funds. But are there too few actors? Are there insufficient incentives for the private sector to invest in filmmaking institutes? You could argue that a few decades ago, there was a need for government to subsidise Indian actors and filmmaking. It is difficult to argue that is the case today: the film industry was worth over $2 billion last year and almost produces more films than the United States, China and Japan (the next three biggest producers) combined. There are too many films. There are too many television channels. There is an oversupply of films, television programmes, actors and filmmakers. It makes no sense to subsidise film-making in this situation. Privatising the Film and Television Institute of India is a good idea, especially if it can use the autonomy to improve industry standards.

In a twitter conversation, a fimmaker retorted saying if government can run IITs and IIMs, then why not FTII? The answer really is that just like FTII, the government should get out of running IITs and IIMs too. Where there is need for government is in the running of 665 universities where around 30 million students are enrolled. All the IITs and IIMs together account for a mere 15000 students. The poorest student who secures admission to IITs or IIMs is likely to secure grants, scholarships or loans to pay her fees. On the other hand, the pure sciences, social sciences and arts need greater public funding because of the dismal state these disciplines are in. Universities represent education in its broadest sense, and has the broadest externalities — an educated population is in the public interest.

The debate on a few elite institutions is misplaced. The government ought to get out of running film, engineering, management and law institutes. There is no case for pouring scarce public funds in areas where there is a glut and where there are enough incentives for private provision.

Sunday Levity: Ten reasons why Bappi Lahiri is better than a thermonuclear bomb

A National Humour Rights Commission Report

At the sidelines of a G-20 summit, two bhais, one Hindi, one Chini, meet at an abandoned temple.

Mere Paas Bappi Hai
Mere Paas Bappi Hai

Chinibhai: “Look, we both rose from the same per-capita GDP rate. But see where you are now, and where I am now. Today I have tall buildings, Olympic stadiums, trade surpluses, Sovereign Wealth Funds, ICBMs and thermonuclear bombs. What do you have?”

Hindibhai: “Mere paas Bappi hai

Contrary to popular belief, the Indian interlocutor was not making a emotional argument. He was engaged in strategic signaling—sounding a subtle warning that even if the thermonuclear design didn’t deliver the expected bang, we have Bappi on our side. A keen scholar of Indian history and culture, the Indian diplomat was drawing attention to the ancient Reality Show in which the Kauravas might well have had the biggest army, but the Pandavas had The Charioteer. We all know how that war ended.

You don’t have to be a Bappitva fundamentalist to understand why Bappi Lahiri is better than a thermonuclear bomb. At the broadest strategic level, this is because while a nuclear weapon is merely an instrument of hard power, Bappida is that and more. For ten important reasons:

First, because a thermonuclear bomb has to be developed indigenously it is very hard and expensive to build one. On the other hand, not only do we already have Bappida, but he himself has never been moved by indigenousness, swadeshi and other forms of irrelevant parochialism. He’ll take whatever, from wherever and make it rock.

Second, even if you design a thermonuclear bomb, it is very difficult and very costly to test it. Bappida doesn’t suffer from similar constraints. He’ll just go ahead and test his designs—if you think it is successful, you’ll get on your feet and dance. If you don’t, then it cost you Rs 25 (in 1985 rupees) or less to figure out that you are on the sad side of the generation gap. No one will demand a ban on his tests.

Third, how easy do you think it is to increase the yield of a thermonuclear bomb? The correct answer is “not at all”. But to improve Bappida’s yield you just need to turn the knob (of the 1985 amplifier) clockwise, slowly. (Those who have done this will know that it will set-off explosions in the adjacent room, flat or town. In some localities in Tamil Nadu, it will even cause mass migrations radiating away from the said amplifier.)

Fourth, you can’t put dark glasses on a thermonuclear bomb.

Fifth, a thermonuclear bomb is useless as a store of wealth. But Bappida is India’s secret Sovereign Wealth Fund. All that gold jewelry can defend the rupee, the Indian government and the Indian film industry.

Sixth, the bomb doesn’t have a son called Bappa.

Seventh, nobody in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Hollywood or South Bombay knows, or gives a damn about, India’s thermonuclear bomb. But they are passionate about Jimmy.

Eighth, try getting a thermonuclear bomb to sue Dr Dre for plagiarism. It can’t, and even if it did, no California jury will side with an ugly beast that doesn’t sport dark glasses indoors and wear heavy gold jewelry.

Ninth, a hydrogen bomb can’t judge a reality show.

And finally, the thermonuclear bomb can never—not in a million years—sing “Yaad aa raha hai, tera pyaar”. See for yourself:

Actually, astute as they are, the Chinibhais have known all this for some time. But they couldn’t do much about it. Not that they didn’t try—surely, you don’t think that it is a mere coincidence that that Dear Leader chap wears dark glasses—but not every charioteer is The Charioteer. Till that time, India is safe.

Those bloodstained DVDs

You can fight terrorists too—by refusing to buy pirated discs.

“If you buy pirated DVDs,” says RAND Corporation’s Greg Treverton, “there is a good chance that at least part of the money will go to organized crime and those proceeds fund more-dangerous criminal activities, possibly terrorism” (linkthanks Yossarin). Quite obviously, The Acorn agrees. The RAND study sheds more light on the links between content piracy and terrorism across the world. This link is specially relevant in our part of the world which has a major film and music industry, weakly enforced anti-piracy laws, expanding terrorist networks and nonchalant public mores when it comes to respect for intellectual property rights.

See this archived post how Indians unwittingly give money to the terrorists who kill their fellows when they purchase pirated DVDs.

Many a time in recent years, and especially after the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, ordinary citizens asked what they could do—as individuals—to fight the terrorists. Well, here’s something that could be pretty effective: stop buying pirated DVDs. Now can someone turn this into a popular campaign?