Laakhon Mein Ek Review: The Topography of Terror

Created by Biswa Kalyan Rath, this Amazon Prime web series set in an IIT Coaching Institute sticks to the genre template. The material is intimate and comes from a place of experience and trauma
Laakhon Mein Ek Review: The Topography of Terror

Creator: Biswa Kalyan Rath

Director: Abhishek Sengupta

Cast: Ritwik Sahore, Alam Khan, Jay Thakkar, Dharmesh Patel, Shiv Subramaniam

At a recent open mic event, Biswa Kalyan Rath, the lanky, freewheeling standup star, delivered a thirty-minute segment on his life and (hysterical) times at IIT Kharagpur. Expectedly, it was full of colourful anecdotes about hostel life, illegal marijuana farms, drug-addicted roommates, angsty "engineering" humour and shifty professors. By the end of it, I wasn't as amused as I was fascinated by the vividness of Biswa's storytelling. It's the one time he straddles the thin line between observational comedy and narrative non-fiction.

Without really trying, he painted a strong audiovisual picture of this alien environment; I could literally see the greasy corridors, the chemistry lab, the faded boxers on clothes lines, the shady acres of land behind the dorms, the basketball court and the secret terraces accommodating the idiosyncratic characters of his tales. More than punch lines, I came back with images. Beyond all the lyrical cusswords and inimitable Oriya accent, there is an underlying mood to this phase of his performances.

This mood is an aggressive one. Despite his hyperbolic descriptions, it feels personal. One senses here that Biswa is consciously lighting up some desperately dark memory lanes with the bright candles of tragicomedy. He sounds, perhaps on purpose, like the "black sheep" who got away. He sounds like a proud deflector making the most of his escape, unlike some of his less fortunate batch mates.

He also sounds like he wants to say so much more – perhaps without the mic, off the stage, behind the curtains, uncluttered by the pressure of the funny-man spotlight.

Which is why it is oddly appropriate that his first web series, Laakhon Mein Ek, is a natural extension of this mood: more storytelling than comedy, more voice than words. We get a glimpse into the unforgiving environment that made him the "Biswa Mast Aadmi" we know, much before he might have learned how to laugh at himself. That's not to say it's autobiographical. The title is somewhat ironic, given that Biswa is effectively "Laakhon Mein Ek" (One in a million) for successfully pulling out of the rat race, but the story is about a boy (Ritwik Sahore, as Akash Gupta) who is "one in the many millions" starting that race. Over the six episodes, it's all about how the grammar of this phrase changes – from rule to exception – within the soggy confines of an IIT coaching institute.

In a way, it plays out like a self-serious prequel to Biswa's graphic Kharagpur segments: the institute before "the" institute. And contrary to expectations, this six-episode student series is anything but funny. It might be funny if you imagine Biswa narrating parts of it on stage, but he dispels this notion within the first few minutes by appearing as a lifeless professor: a cog in the wheel he so often flings off a cliff in his shows.

In an age where so many movies and sub-plots pivot around the creative-v/s-corporate conflict and brain-drain epidemic, it's hardly surprising to watch another suffocated kid struggling to break free

The institute in question goes by the name of Genius Infinity in Visakhapatnam. It is run by the stern Mr. Moorthy (Shiv Subramaniam), a Narayan-Shankar-ish patriarch who considers the Kota coaching culture as the ultimate benchmark for the brain business. Eleventh grader Akash, fresh off a princely 55% in his boards, is not the brightest bulb in Raipur, but his parents ship him off to "South India" for an intensive two-year slog. His "ordinary" Raipur Commerce dreams are swatted away; at Genius, he is expected not only to prepare for the IIT Entrance exams, but also breeze through the regular CBSE junior-college syllabus. He is already a latecomer, because many of the scholars in here are ripe from an intensive three-year prep course pre-shadowing the actual coaching course to get into the graduate-degree main course. To make things worse, he is placed in the "D" section: an impoverished wing for modest, no-hoper sub-60-percent kids who're simply making up the numbers.

As a narrative, Laakhon Mein Ek sticks to the genre template. Akash's journey isn't cinematically path-breaking. In an age where so many movies and sub-plots pivot around the creative-v/s-corporate conflict and brain-drain epidemic, it's hardly surprising to watch another suffocated kid struggling to break free. His path, too, is riddled with familiar faces: the morally ambiguous but loyal roommates, the telltale institute topper, a generous genius, a murderous caretaker, robotic teachers, emotionally distant parents, innovative cheating strategies, a nervous bribe-loving peon and the ethical angle of young-adult existentialism.

His parents, especially, sound like caricatures. For instance, in a scene where they visit him and take him out for dinner, they are required to be in denial about his dire condition. We know they are supposed to drive Akash over the edge here, but their lines ("Our son will also fund all our travels and dreams soon") sound painfully manufactured to achieve this breakdown. I've always had a problem with the one-dimensional depiction of adults – the enemies – in the Udaans and 3 Idiots of this world; this series joins the long list of black-and-white generational battles.

But it's the mechanics of this atmosphere – the specifics and little details – that makes this show more lived-in than its mainstream companions. The characters might look like they're designed for effect and accessibility, but their geography is unpretentious and stark. The physical mood is reminiscent of Abhay Kumar's Placebo, a documentary in which the filmmaker follows a bunch of medical students for two years within the country's most competitive institute.

Genius Infinity, too, has that muggy anxiety about it. The "A" section represents a higher standard of living, while the lower sections are treated with disdain – a detail that yanks these teenagers out of their childhood into the ruthless, result-oriented and classist confines of adult society. Their currency: grades.

Not once do we see them outside of this juvenile prison exploring the town. Some of the cooler (read: duffer) students wear razor-blade pendants, almost as if in punkish solidarity with the suicidal ways of fallen comrades. It's a "trend" they are superficially aware of, and one that always seems around the corner at the institute – especially when things seem to be looking joyous once Akash starts to blend in. Happiness cannot be trusted. This constant feeling of doom is punctuated upon when a dengue outbreak in the hostel kick-starts the downward spiral; even the colour tone of the last two episodes assumes the hues of a bleak, desaturated, post-apocalyptic palette.

Sahore looks trapped, and sidelined, and though years of coming-of-age stories have conditioned us to root for his "moment," we stop short of branding him a weakling when it doesn't come

Many of these changes are obvious, but lead actor Ritwik Sahore lends an unnerving fragility to Biswa's straight-faced writing. Akash never looks like he is completely familiar with the nooks and corners of his surroundings. The humidity has him perpetually sweating, and the mess food has him perpetually wincing. He scrapes the dead skin off his fingers during tests, and approaches every noticeboard with zero hope. His might not be the most unique role, but young Sahore – who has excelled as the Parsi batting prodigy in Ferrari Ki Sawaari and the girls' cousin in Dangal – equips it with a vulnerability that brings us closer to a cut-throat world we have only mourned through newspaper headlines.

There are times when the makers go overboard with the tonal buildup of his internal conflict; Sahore, though, convinces us that Biswa's material is intimate, and comes from a place of experience and trauma. He looks trapped, and sidelined, and though years of coming-of-age stories have conditioned us to root for his "moment," we stop short of branding him a weakling when it doesn't come. That he makes his pain inexplicable and difficult to decode works in favour of a show uninterested in cathartic resolutions.

Irrespective of Chetan Bhagat's current status as literature's "massy" villain, his first book, Five Point Someone, set the tone for protagonists like Akash to look past their zeroes and feel like heroes. The campuses were living, breathing characters in his first few novels, in stark contrast to the commercial film adaptations that turned them into garish High-School-Musical sets.

Even today, one of my biggest cold-sweat nightmares features my school-going days. In particular, there's a recurring image – the shock of discovering an entire syllabus left to study a night before the final exams. Right from the grassroots, the Indian education system is so replete with brainwashing techniques that this irrational fear remains ingrained into my being. An angry show like this, as rough-at-the-edges as it may be, reminds me that while I can't regret my passionless literacy, I can resent it. I feel sadness and rage for parents throwing their kids into this merciless mixer; yet, I also understand why they have little choice. The herd mentality is crippling. Aspirations are privatized.

Modern-day Germany has preserved much of its dark history – remnants of the brutal Nazi regime and the Berlin Wall – through beautiful memorials and airy museums that pop up between streets in broad daylight. The thinking behind this is simple: locals should forever be reminded of and humbled by these atrocities, instead of sweeping them under a rug.

In India's case, this philosophy could be extended to the remains of coaching institutes decades down the line. Monuments of remembrance might be constructed around these somber structures – to remind future generations of the hearts and souls sacrificed at the altar of the academic revolution. At each of them, I can imagine silent images of this show flashing on screens at the entrance. Because it's the sights, the visual texture, of the Genius Infinity IIT Coaching Institute (and CBSE Junior College) – and not so much the formulaic sounds – that help us empathize with some horrific situations.

Watch the trailer of Laakhon Mein Ek here:

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