Creator: Saurabh Khanna
Director: Raghav Subbu
Writers: Abhishek Yadav, Saurabh Khanna, Puneet Batra and Manoj Kalwani.
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Mayur More, Ranjan Raj, Revathi Pillai, Ahsaas Channa
Streaming on: Netflix
I was probably a different person when I enjoyed the first season of Kota Factory. Back in 2019 the show felt like a sad smile, an antidote to Hindi cinema’s entitled gaze of The Great Indian Rat Race. It managed to locate a beating heart within a drone-like body, straddling the cultural fence between subtle indictment and nostalgic throwback. For those like myself who have only experienced the conveyor-belt rumble of the IIT coaching-class multiverse through the movies, Kota Factory felt like a rare acknowledgment of the calm before the storm – of the camaraderie between the chaos. It was serious in a strangely disarming way, as though the makers trusted the viewers to understand that one student’s evolving nightmare is another’s coming-of-age dream.
But after watching Season 2, I’m not sure about the show’s intellectual integrity anymore. I still like the way it’s made: the black-and-white palette, the wryly detailed production design, the aerial camera angles framing Kota’s factory-and-maze landscape, the playful score, the young actors themselves. But enough time has elapsed between the two seasons for neutrals such as myself to recognize that everything about the TVF Middle-Indian Aspirant universe is in fact a calibrated formula. (Not to mention the release of Hostel Daze and Aspirants, web shows so fiercely exclusive about their ecosystems that it felt like I needed a secret password to have an opinion on it).
At first, it feels new and novel: the coaching-class hierarchy within the city, protagonist Vaibhav’s adjustment issues, the struggle to reconcile the theories of succeeding with the practicals of surviving, Jeetu Bhaiya’s rousing “Only 21 days” speech. Season 2 opens well, too, with Vaibhav excited about his first day in the Goliath-like Maheshwari Classes after he leaves the David-like Prodigy Classes. But his colour is soon drained, both literally and figuratively – the show relapses into old form, the monochromatic look returns, and Vaibhav realizes he’s a nobody in a sea of toppers after being a somebody in a pond of middlers. Big bad Maheshwari Sir himself gives the introductory speech – a hybrid of Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.’ Doctor Asthana and Mohabbatein’s Narayan Shankar – and sets the stage for Vaibhav’s conflict. There are a few nice directorial touches, like the opening Forrest-Gump-esque score followed by the papery symphony of a thousand pages being turned together in a packed classroom. And then the patterns start to kick in. Season 2 is not so much an extension as a franchise-triggering reaction to the huge reception of Season 1. It’s like someone told the series: you’re famous, now act like it. It’s still watchable, of course, but you can see the change, you can see the posturing, you can see the emotions. And that’s not always a good thing. To draw a hardcore TVF analogy, Kota Factory Season 2 is like Aspirants’ Abhilash after he passes his UPSC exams – it sheds old attachments without truly embracing the new.
I’ll get to the specifics. But some of the “design” is unmistakable. For instance, superstar teacher Jeetu Bhaiya (Jitendra Kumar) – who became iconic after his extended cameo the first time around – now has a monologue in each of the five episodes. It’s perfectly logical to break the veneer and humanize someone like Jeetu Bhaiya – he symbolizes the Rocket Singh start-up story in a clutter of AYS giants this season – but how much is too much? Is he a cool mentor or a woke social media bot? His topics range from masturbation to a cringe-worthy one on selfless mothers (I’m sorry for grouping the two together). In one of the episodes, he even lectures – mansplains, actually – a female business partner about the importance of hiring a female business partner in a male-dominated field. In another, he throws a party for the students who fail, which feels as eerily pretentious as the break-up party opening Love Aaj Kal. The visual metaphor of staging a scene featuring three existential students and a parrot in a cage is, again, too showy to be nuanced. Which brings me to the biggest problem of this season: the writing.
The gimmick of naming every episode (Control System, Repair & Maintenance, Packaging) to evoke a factory setup is alright. Until you realize that, in the minds of male creators who’ve been through the technical coldness of the engineering system, everything assumes the grammar of an equation that needs to be solved. Including women and gender inclusivity. For example, Ahsaas Channa’s crowd-pleasing Shivangi is actually a female version of a quintessentially male character. The translation is literal: the crude boy is now the bindaas girl. She is an academic concept rather than an actual person. Ditto for Vartika, Vaibhav’s crush, who’s just as passive as Ratan’s romantic interest from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Remember her voice? Precisely. The coyness was cute in 1992, but it’s an alpha-male fantasy in 2021. Then there’s a new character introduced midway through the season: a woman who seems like she’s going to be crucial until she’s treated like a dispensable idea. She spends most of her screen time watching and admiring Jeetu Bhaiya, living in the background of every frame, smiling passively, almost as though the writers were merely content with her existence.
Maybe she might have a role to play in subsequent seasons, but here it’s more than a loose thread. It’s a full-blooded copout, one that sticks out like a sore thumb in a crowd of new-age themes. There’s also an entire episode dedicated to the importance of hard-working sons taking their mothers for granted. The notion is not explored but endorsed. I’m not saying the writing should be reeking of noble messages and political correctness, and I can say it’s true that Indian homemakers are largely pigeonholed as either mothers or wives. But this ‘authenticity’ of chauvinistic engineering hopefuls often errs on the side of tone-deaf arrogance. Jeetu Bhaiya sugarcoating it as a medicinal tonic is hardly the subversive anti-speech it promises to be.
Kota Factory gets so busy riffing on the ironies of the education business that it tends to lose sight of the bigger picture. I suppose that’s deliberate – which made it unique in 2019, but it’s now willful ignorance. Caste, sexism, mental health and crippling pressures are glided over in service of an entertaining snapshot of teenhood. You sense that the show doesn’t want to romanticize the struggle, but at the same time struggles to stay pragmatic about an oppressive environment. Various terms like “character-building” are thrown around to justify the low-stakes air, reminiscent of the flaws plaguing the recent docu-series Alma Maters: Inside the IIT Dream. As I mentioned before, the actors are solid, but their characters still look like inside jokes. Vaibhav, Meena, Uday and the gang are therefore a little less interesting, because they’re now torn between catering to an audience and being that audience. The journey of Season 2 will naturally lead to a Season 3, and perhaps a 4 and 5 too, but it’s clear that the honeymoon period is over. Hard truths can’t be softened for too long, and while the final episode does manage to be both informative and self-aware, Kota Factory is now saddled with the burden of meaning something more than its fancy film-making. The out-of-syllabus portions have only begun. This season is just an over-constructed bridge into the future.