Twenty four-year-old Samvedna Suwalka from Udaipur is ecstatic. That's because, in her second year at the Mumbai-based film and TV institute Whistling Woods International, she is being taught by acting guru Rob Reece, from the prestigious Actors Studio in New York Studio and Los Angeles. "He's the head of department, acting, and it's brilliant, what he has taught us!" she exclaims.
Suwalka says if she had to go to film school in the US, it would have cost her five times as much as she paid for her course at Whistling Woods.
This is what pains Subhash Ghai, the man behind Whistling Woods, the most. The veteran filmmaker and producer, currently embroiled in a legal tangle over whether the land on which the institute is based was given to him by former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh at extremely low rates or not, is upset that the key issue: the future of a much-needed, proven, home-grown but world-class film school — is somewhere getting lost. Ghai understands the importance of education (he himself is from Pune's Film and Television Institute). "I used to get hundreds of letters and requests from young people all over the country, asking me to give them a break," says Ghai, explaining why he decided to set up Whistling Woods.
"Maybe they thought since I had introduced stars like Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff, I could help them. I identified with them because I have struggled too (after he finished his course at Pune and came to Mumbai, Ghai literally went door to door for five years, looking for work, before he got his first break). I thought there was an urgent need for a professionally run institute for them." Ghai went all out, drawing the best talent he could for his school. (For the first three years, Naseeruddin Shah was the head of the acting department. Anjum Rajabali is the head of the screenwriting programme. Former deans have included John J Lee, a media and entertainment stalwart whose book The Producer's Business Handbook is a standard reference work in film schools all over the world. And so on. It's not difficult to believe Ghai when he says, “Do you know 40% of my budget goes in salaries? In any case, film education is very expensive. No film school in the world makes money. But Whistling Woods is my dream, my passion. I want to do something for young people, I want to give back to society."