Creator: Saurabh Khanna
Director: Raghav Subbu
Cast: Mayur More, Ranjan Raj, Alam Khan, Jitendra Kumar, Ahsaas Channa, Revathi Pillai
Streaming on: TVFPlay
For the longest time, we’ve been conditioned to believe that art is not just the refuge but also the medium of the rebel. And not without reason. A country like ours enables a gruelling academic culture in which, by extension, there is nobody braver and more theatrical than the “dropout”. The underdog. The rioter. While some of the most important art of a generation is conceived by the ones that swim against the tide, most of these stories, too, thrive on romanticizing their misfit syndrome. Movies are made, and literature written, about misunderstood minds. Sociocultural milestones – Chetan Bhagat, 3 Idiots, the Ranbir Kapoor hero, the stand-up comedy landscape, Laakhon Mein Ek S01 – are built upon the foundation of deflected engineers.
Which is why it’s oddly appropriate that Kota Factory, an unorthodox addition to the conveyor belt of campus shows, comes from TVF (The Viral Fever), one of India’s first Youtube content channels, but more famously a collective of accidental creators. I say “unorthodox” because, ironically, Kota Factory dares to be about the orthodox Indian student. The majority. The workers. The future 9-to-5ers. The ones that make peace with an environment that inadvertently produces more “creative types” than IITians. The series, unlike most others, locates the humanity within their servitude. Here, the student is too busy adapting to the insides – a new town, a parent-less room, sweaty nights, coaching-class hierarchies – to even consider dreaming about the outside. You have average boys and girls wondering about how to be upgraded to better batches, or to the more prestigious coaching schools, rather than fretting about whether they belong there at all.
At first, anxious protagonist Vaibhav Pandey (Mayur More) looks fragile, as though he might hijack the show with a desperate breakout journey. We wait for the trigger. But the second episode is suitably all about “settling” into a solid routine – 21 days, apparently – and ends with a lovely moment of a mother ceasing to worry precisely because her son fails to answer her phone call. “Uska mann lag gaya,” she smiles, finally at ease. We don’t see her again. His exasperations, too, have less to do with life and more to do with an inbred allergy to trick questions and lazy teachers. One might attribute the pragmatic tone to the show’s choice of sponsor (an online teaching app), but there’s enough fluidity in the detailing to suggest that maybe the narrative wasn’t fully designed to accommodate its commercials. Even the product integration isn’t as jarring as, say, a TVF Tripling and its glossy hipster-millennial cousins.
That’s not to say Kota Factory and its breezy five-episode season celebrates, or even endorses, our lopsided education system. Or specifically Kota, the epicentre of institutional dream-selling. It simply shows the young souls who have chosen to navigate it. Vaibhav and his Prodigy Classes friends serve as a peephole into a world that does not have the luxury to be accessorized with plot twists and airy coming-of-age arcs. The “tread carefully” disclaimers, however, are built into the show’s physicality. There’s the stark monochromatic palette, which can be construed as a nod to the colourless and tunnel-visioned two years of Kota’s 2 lakh teenaged IIT-Jee aspirants. The final lapse into colour, though, indicates that perhaps the black-and-whiteness had more to do with Vaibhav’s emotional circularity as a Kota climber. Then there’s a searing monologue in the very first episode by Jeetu Sir (the excellent Jitendra Kumar), a character dropped into the factory as a homage (notice the way he is introduced in a parody-like hero montage) to cinema’s “cool professor” stereotype. His monologue – one that ruthlessly deconstructs the ecosystem (“It takes 7 years to get over these 2 years,” “every batch is divided into rankers and (our) bankers”) – is not just a rude shock to newbie Vaibhav, but also an eye-opener to those who plan to waltz into Kota under a cloud of rose-tinted college movies.
There are more signs. The series even opens with a rickshaw driver who rattles off facts to Vaibhav and his father, uncannily referring to the city as a “Jurassic Park,” as if to warn them about the close-ended zoo they are striving to enter. There’s also the ominous cinematography: The show’s signature top-angle drone shots (reflecting the drone-line aptitude of its occupants?) present Kota’s circuit-like topography with a hamster-in-a-maze vibe. The first episode ends with a striking shot – the camera swoops up high to show Vaibhav, upgraded to A5 from a lowly A10 batch, happily merging into the crowd of kids bundling into the institute’s gates. Like a rat joining the race. It zooms out further through a circular opening of the roof, an illusion that replicates the act of observing the kids through the keyhole of a prison door.
The performances more or less compliment the setting. Vaibhav’s flatmates in particular – geeky Meena (a scene-stealing Ranjan Raj) and funky Uday (Alam Khan) – achieve a healthy balance between caricature and companionship. The two represent the narrative extremes of Kota – Meena, the hard-working “quota” admission determined to justify his place, and Uday, the chiller wasting away his boyhood. Another day, Uday might have been the lonesome hero of a parallel universe. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the actor, Alam Khan, was also the hopeless sidekick in Laakhon Mein Ek, a show that tells the ultimate misfit tale. There are a few false notes: a Gujarati “scholar” with metal-mouth braces, a double-date episode that distracts from Vaibhav’s trajectory, and the gratingly light-hearted personalities of the bit players.
But Kota Factory’s biggest asset is its writing by Abhishek Yadav, Saurabh Khanna and Sandeep Jain, which somehow maintains a semi-dramatic progression without compromising on the factual tone of the series. I especially like the way each of them interpret the most cinematic of emotions solely through the language of wry academics. For instance, Vaibhav’s infatuation is fuelled by study dates with a non-coaching-class girl; they have no other excuse to meet. A request as unassuming as “Let’s start the 12th standard syllabus tomorrow?” acquires the lofty mood of reciprocated love. Ditto for the pre-exam curd-and-sugar routine, which manages to transcend its superstitious connotations to denote an unspoken bond. Uday casually employs the term “romantic consumerism” to save his love story, while Vaibhav goes on a priceless Pyaar-Ka-Punchnama-style rant that advertises his hair-raising hatred for Chemistry (“Inorganic” feels like an IITian’s in-joke). Most of all, a memorable parting line reads, “Friendship is not revision; you don’t have to do it,” without seeming the least bit corny.
The finale is heartbreakingly mature, in the way it treats the characters as self-aware (but self-less) kids who are under no delusions about distance and destinies. By being in Kota, away from their own, trapped in a bubble of derived desire, they are forced to equate the concepts of evolution and separation. At times, they are unable to tell the difference. Meena’s tantrum is retrospectively evocative for how rooted it is in the assumption that there is, at that stage of life, often no turning back. All of which makes Kota Factory a very genuine show – perhaps TVF’s best work since Pitchers. It acknowledges a culture that inextricably links man and machine…without asking us to identify one from the other. After all, artificial intelligence is merely a mechanized subset of intelligence.