Bollywood producer Subhash Ghai talks to Screen about his plans to expand Mumbai-based film school, Whistling Woods, on an international level.

Whistling Woods International (WWI), the Mumbai-based film school founded by veteran producer Subhash Ghai in 2006, recently signed a deal to establish a campus at studio complex Ciudad de la Luz in Alicante, Spain, which it expects to be operational by the end of the year.

The school is also in talks for a campus in Ipoh, Malaysia and is eyeing sites in the UK, United Arab Emirates and South Africa.  

The main Indian campus, located at Film City in the northern suburbs of Mumbai, has an international faculty and around 400 students on its two-year diploma courses, of which 15% are from overseas.

Ghai is also chairman of publicly-listed production company Mukta Arts.

Why did you decide to establish Whistling Woods?

It started by asking why the industry wasn’t attracting new talent from all over the country. We live in a big country but the business is ruled by children of the film industry. New talent is deprived of opportunities so we thought about developing this one school or platform that could set people on the right path.

Around 1991, I applied to the governments of various [Indian] states and after ten years received a proposal from Film City to open a school here. Then we went public, raised some money from the market, and visited the US, UK and Australia to research the curriculum and learn about how a film school is run. Of course we had to develop a curriculum that also takes account of Indian culture.

Why take the Whistling Woods concept global?

Usually an institute that is just four years old does not think of expansion, and definitely not on a global level. But in our case, it has been more of a pull than a push. Over the past two years, we have received several invitations from governments and large educational and media conglomerates from several countries who would like to affiliate with WWI or partner with us in setting up state-of-the-art M&E [media and entertainment] educational facilities like the one we’ve set up in Mumbai.

Spain, South Africa, Bermuda, Mauritius, Malaysia & UAE are some countries from where we have received strong signals. And those are really virgin markets for film, TV, animation and other M&E educational programmes.

How will you finance the expansion?

We are considering several options. WWI is a successful story right now, we have had a lot of interest for partnerships from many places and a full range of funding options are available to us to finance our future plans. Each new business and venture will bring its own set of funding options and we will select the one that works for WWI on a case-by-case basis.

Are the style and methods of filmmaking in Bollywood still very different to those in the West?

Yes – films made in India are very different from those made in the US or Europe. Given that 90% of our revenues come from within India, there is a general feeling within Bollywood that we do not need to make films that cater to a global audience. Hence most of the films don’t. That’s not necessarily a good thing as if we did, we would be able to widen our audience and generate much more revenue. It’s just that no filmmaker yet has been able to find the right balance between India and the world as far as content goes. Maybe we should be doing what Hollywood does and have a different cut for each country that our films release in.

Also the way we plan and execute our films is different from that of Hollywood and Europe. Both these are high per capita income markets with a relatively low labour force. In India, it’s the opposite – we have a huge labour force and low per capita income. Apart from this, the primary process of filmmaking is pretty much the same.

How does WWI equip its students to work in both worlds?

When we educate our students, we do it in a way that would allow them to work in any country in the world.

We show them the best work from India and various other countries around the world. They are then encouraged to pursue the style of filmmaking and content creation that they want. Hence, our student diploma films range from the completely commercial Bollywood-style entertainers to genre-specific arthouse films.

Our students also learn processes. They learn what are the objectives to be achieved in any task in the filmmaking pipeline. We do tell them that this is one way to do it, but if they would like to adopt another approach to achieve the objective, they are free to do so. This ensures that the education the students get is native, pure and not coloured by opinion. At the end of it, if the student achieves the objective, whichever process he/she applied, is the right one.

Is Indian cinema changing?

Yes it is changing, slowly. My generation had very little exposure to what was happening outside the nation, but now most ten-year-olds have knowledge of pretty much every nation via the internet. We’ll start to reap the rewards of that in about ten years from now. We can already see with our students that their brains are working in a different way. Unfortunately people who want to make something different have not been supported by the market, but gradually financing for different types of cinema will grow.