Directors: Pratik Patra, Prashant Raj
Cinematography: Abhineet Chute, Ashay Gangwar
Edited by: Shivajee Biswanath, Satyam Sai
Starring: Biswa Kalyan Rath, Shubham Agarwal, Lokesh Deshmukh, Mukul Sankule, Kevin Banker, Adarsh Upadhyay, Kartikeya Singh
Streaming on: Netflix
A decade ago, a three-part documentary series about IIT Kharagpur and its student culture – warts and all – might have been a pathbreaking leveller in an age of exaggerated campus fairytales. But in 2021, after years of TVF and Streaming course correction of the higher-learning ecosystem, it's Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream that conversely feels like a behind-the-scenes peek into the making of the fictional campus story. Perhaps this is a testament to both the dramatization of middle-Indian academics and its bond-affirming reality. Or perhaps it's just the narrative fatigue of life. Either way, this artistic obsession with the toxicity of India's favourite dream-selling hamster wheel is long overdue, with the stories now being told by passionate deflectors and 'survivors' of the grind. Nostalgia is an inherent part of them because, as one student admits, for better or worse it's these five-to-seven years that define a lifelong sense of identity.
Alma Matters doesn't follow students so much as characters in the country's premier engineering institution. The camaraderie is familiar. Their level of self-awareness is astounding – it's like they're watching the tragicomic contradictions and ironies of a rat-race movie, critiquing it as well as starring in it all at once. They display such sharp observational skills and philosophical leanings that it's no wonder some of them eventually embrace stand-up comedy, writing and storytelling. For instance, one of the students notes how orientation completely subverts the art of lying ("you look into their eyes and lie instead of looking down"). Later he explains – in equally colourful language – about how it's not family ("ghar-waalo") but the history of home ("ghar") that is the source of crippling pressure. That it's their lower-middle-class existence, not the parents themselves, driving the do-or-die ambitions. Another off-handedly notes how the prison-like two years of JEE preparation ("the three-storey building has classes on the third floor, mess on the second and rooms on the first: study, eat, sleep") prompt the burnt-out students to treat the IIT campus as their freedom land. These insights – often delivered in self-depreciatory and deadpan tones – allow the documentary to run without a narrator or voice-over. The title is a play on the format: most of the talking heads are ex-students (one of whom is star creator-comic Biswa Kalyan Rath), whose hindsight-drenched perspectives provide bittersweet context to the immediacy of the 2018-19 batches.
It's disarming to see the faculty being frank about the limitations of the system. In the opening episode, the moment the professors speak about the 300-400 strong size of the classes these days – admitting that it's difficult to afford any student the individual attention they deserve – your heart sinks a bit as a viewer. You immediately imagine the consequences of neglection: the tucked-away headlines about student suicides, the stark loneliness of not feeling hopeless, the lack of guidance and father figures. When a tragedy is examined in the final episode, it almost feels inevitable. Even though the series doesn't indulge in flashbacks, you mentally hear snippets of the professor's voices. That it comes on the back of a celebration only emphasizes the shock – the opening words of a classmate's interview ("every time someone commits suicide…") reveal a story without needing to tell it.
This portion – especially the way it's visually designed (morphing into monochromatic gloom) – reminded me of Abhay Kumar's Placebo. Unlike Placebo, the way Alma Matters "addresses" the suicide problem feels a little tokenistic, as though the makers were ticking off an important box before concluding the series. The significance of Placebo was derived from its sense of discovery and curiosity. Kumar started by simply following his younger brother as a medical student in AIIMS Delhi. But his experiment quickly turned into an undercover year-long stay on campus, where he allowed his camera to follow not just the students but also the chaos in their heads. The documentary stays open to shape-shifting, thereafter chancing upon new directions and conflicts. The urgent guerilla vibe of Placebo is what's missing from Alma Matters – everything looks too structured, planned and pre-conceived. The first episode juxtaposes the history of IIT against the present, touching upon how career trajectories are altered through a randomized admission process, before wrapping up with the 1:9 gender ratio and inherent sexism of the environment. The camera finds all the right events (the gymkhana elections, placement week) to cover, and maybe that's the problem. There are no out-of-syllabus offshoots, no investigative rigour. The result is oddly superficial, heavily reliant on the perceptive students to spout life-hacks that the series itself cannot seem to convey. It has the aura of a "real picture" portrait, but one can almost hear the questions being asked by the makers to get the answers they assume viewers want to hear.
I suspect Alma Matters might have revealed an answer, dispelling all uncertainty and myth, if there were a fourth part
That being said, I like that the series chooses to change order, ending on a slightly sombre note instead of sticking with the students' timeline. The tensions and happily ever afters of placement week define the second episode, while tragedy tinges the third and final one – a reminder that education is essentially a humbling and soul-sucking privilege in this country. The third episode opens with a long stretch of students tirelessly preparing for the annual festival. This goes on for a while – a blur of nights, clay lamps, instructions, rangoli colours. The motivations are unclear. One of them mentions that the struggle will be worth it for the split-second of joy when the lights come on. He's right: the result is beautiful, and almost a passing metaphor for how the students – dishevelled and paranoid and messy – must feel at the end of their long and incoherent journey. Like an immaculate symbol of light. The image lasts for a fleeting minute, and then it's gone. A thunderstorm takes over.
The last shot – of two graduates walking away from the camera into a green field, before pausing and looking around – looks staged but necessary. The figures are a blur, and they look completely unprepared for the vastness of the world beyond the campus. "Now what?" seems to be the sentiment. But I suspect Alma Matters might have revealed an answer, dispelling all uncertainty and myth, if there were a fourth part. Maybe the aftermath, too, would be neatly segregated into three chapters. After all, organization is the cornerstone of
artistic academic success.