Kota Factory started off as a humble, experimental black and white show on YouTube and TVFPlay, only to become a sensation on the web – receiving an overwhelming amount of acclaim and fan following. Two years on, it has been picked up by a streaming giant, Netflix, for its second season. And the cast and crew couldn't have been happier. Director Raghav Subbu, along with lead actors Jitendra Kumar, Mayur More, Ahsaas Channa and Ranjan Raj, talk about the second season, the pressure of expectations and the fear of getting typecast.
Anupama Chopra (AC): Season 1 was very successful. You had a rating of about 9.2 on IMDb. Episode 1 of Season 1 has 44 million views on YouTube. How much pressure was there while shooting Season 2? Did you, while shooting, feel like, "We have to make it as good as the first, we have to top ourselves"?
Raghav Subbu (RS): One thing that was looming over our heads was to not ape, mime or mimic things we had already done in Season 1. Be it visually or even performance-wise. Ranjan [Raj] and I had a brief and we all had a conversation that we will not replicate whatever we have done in Season 1. Even if it comes to a performance, we have to let the character do the talking. We cannot remember, "How did Vaibhav react? How did Jeetu bhaiya feel about a certain instance that happened in Season 1? Or how does Meena feel like going back to Meena after 2 years?" Even as a director, I knew that I cannot go with the same thoughts I had during Season 1 just because those worked for Season 1. Season 2 is a natural progression of the story, of the characters going ahead and their characters blooming. How do I treat that as a show in itself? So the first, and major, step was to just stay true to this season, and the story and whatever was being written.
AC: Jeetu bhaiya has some personal struggles this season. We see him distressed and trying to accomplish something himself. But he is still a student's best friend, and a teacher we could only dream about. Was it tough, as an actor, to balance that?
Jitendra Kumar: Jeetu bhaiya is the agony aunt of the students. For this season, we thought, "Who is the agony aunt of the teachers? They also must be facing problems." We have tried to explore that. I think the philosophy of Season 2 is the same as that of Season 1, there have not been many changes on that front. There are struggles, of course. But it wasn't much of a problem, because both seasons and the characters are same at a philosophical level. So, I didn't face much of a problem reprising my role in Season 2. I didn't keep thinking that I have to do something different here, the struggles of Season 2 are going to be show in a different way. That pressure wasn't on me, thankfully.
AC: The show is obviously a critique of the education system. When the title itself has the word, 'factory' in it, the critique is inherent. But at the same time, it is also inspiring. You are also celebrating resilience. You are teaching children how to brave the odds. As a director, how tough is it to strike this balance?
RS: I think we strike that balance while we write the show. We know the positives and negatives of everything. The creators of the show, Arunabh Kumar and Saurabh Khanna, have lived this life. They have been products of this 'factory'. Saurabh Khanna has been a teacher at Kota. Abhishek Yadav has been an IITian. So, a lot of insight goes into this world where we have to find that voice that we really want to stick to, that we want to tell the world. This is not your usual young adult narrative structure where everything is fast-paced, people are partying, everyone is falling into relationships and they are jumping place to place. It's not that kind of a universe. We wanted to highlight the negatives of this place without being too negative. Because whenever you think of Kota, people automatically think of negative, drudgery, drab, dry life, but we wanted to highlight the positives of this place also. These are 16/17-year-old kids who want to make it to IIT, who want to become doctors, and want to achieve something that is greater than themselves. That is enduring and beautiful at the same time. These are children at the end of the day, and the fact that they want to do something which is so bigger than themselves, is what was the soul of the show. We wanted to show both sides, take whatever you want from the show.
AC: When your characters become this popular, then as artists, do you feel scared that you will end up doing versions only of this? The Hindi film industry is great at stereotyping and typecasting. They start seeing you from a single lens only.
Mayur More: It happened a lot with me. After the release of Kota Factory, a lot of work that I received was student-related, in similar lines. One person told me that they only wanted me to play a role like Vaibhav. I said, "That was for Kota Factory, this is something else". I did an entire film where I had to be [like Vaibhav]. After that, I did a web series with a small role. I thought it had a different impact, and I too wanted to do something different. I would get bored doing the same stuff. So, there is a conscious effort to do different things: even if it is the role of a student, then his story should be different. It shouldn't be the same as Kota Factory.
Ahsaas Channa: Yes. I still get offered roles of college-going girls. The most difficult thing that an actor goes to is saying no to projects. So when Shivangi from Kota Factory happened, in all the other web series I have done, I have played a college going girl. So I will naturally get similar roles, which is why I have to say no to some projects and wait for some different projects to come. I think patience is really required in this. Luckily, now I am getting projects with different roles than those I have done earlier. So I think waiting, having patience, and having the ability to say no is very important.
JK: It's the same with me. When you start getting similar roles, you start wondering till how long can you keep rejecting projects? So I took it as a challenge. I wanted to see how differently I could pull off these roles. Even I should get to know till when it'll remain engaging and when it's not working any longer. In case of the latter, I would use it as a last opportunity to find some other work. I'll restart my struggle and journey. So, I don't reject the roles. I take the work and see what and how much I've got in me [to make it different]. It's like standing in front of the mirror and telling yourself, "How much acting do you know? Show them what you've got."
Ranjan Raj: I get calls for new roles getting a brief that the role is close to Meena, my character in this show. I have got t many calls saying that the role is of someone from a small town. I know that I won't suddenly start getting big roles, that I will be the head of a startup or have Singhania as my surname. None of this is going to happen anytime soon. But as Ahsaas said, you need a little patience. I'll get grown roles as I grow along the way. Meena is here for Kota Factory but otherwise, I want to work in as diverse roles as I can.
AC: When the show became successful, did a discussion come up regarding black and white – that it is something you have committed to?
RS: It came as a passing thought in the middle of the pre-production of Season 1: what are the shows in black and white? I shrugged it off thinking nobody was going to watch it. But then the thought came back a few days later. And I could not shake it off. It got cemented, it got concrete, I could not move away from it. I had to convince my producers, there was a brand on board too. Surprisingly, the brand was ok with it and said, "You decide, it's your thing." That was very surprising. I had to fly down to Bangalore to meet the client and was freaking out that they were going to reject it. I had two cuts – one with colour and the other, black and white – of the trailer and the episodes. I presented the black and white cut and they were ok with it. The producers were a bit difficult to convince, because in 2019, a black and white show on YouTube had all the elements of a flop show. But yet, I knew that it had to be told in black and white. I knew I had that conviction. I knew that even if it bombs, I'll be happy with that product. And it didn't bomb and you can see what has happened to it.