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
Kota Factory Season 2 begins and ends with visuals of looming chimneys spewing out smoke. This is not a spoiler – the word ‘factory’ is in the title. We are back in India’s coaching capital – a town fueled by competition, aspiration, desperation and kachoris. Once again, the lives of teenagers toiling away at this sweatshop are rendered in monochrome. But the critique is leavened by deep bonds of friendship, slice-of-life humour, raging hormones, blossoming romance and of course the insistent and instant motivation provided by Jeetu Bhaiya, who continues to be the world’s best Physics teacher and agony aunt rolled into one. As leading man Vaibhav says – baaki log padhate hain, yeh feel kara dete hain.
And yet, much has changed. To begin with, Vaibhav is now a student of Maheshwari Classes – Kota’s premium coaching institute, a place that unceremoniously rejected him at the start of season one. Maheshwari feels like the Death Star of the coaching ecosystem – imperious, posh, cold and lorded over by Keshav Maheshwari, played by a solid Sameer Saxena, who is Darth Vader without the mask. In episode 1, Keshav delivers a terrifying orientation speech, reminding students that the ITT entrance exam has a 0.44 percent success rate. That it isn’t merely an exam, it’s a better life. He says, ‘Aap SUV drive karenge ya sedan ya hatchback, yeh sab iss exam se decide hoga.’ He follows it up with: I strongly believe that there are only successful men in this world. The unsuccessful are not men. Fittingly, the orientation ends with the students taking an oath that is slightly creepy in its fascist overtones. They say that they will never take their eyes off the prize.
Director and co-showrunner Raghav Subbu doesn’t underplay the inherent horror of this. Starting with the opening and closing frames, the series underlines the claustrophobia and impossible pressure these kids endure. This is a town in which even a pet parrot can rattle off chemistry because its master was mugging the subject all night. Kota is like the meat grinder from Pink Floyd’s iconic song ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ – kids fall into it and emerge as sausages. Individuality is stamped out. Education is a race in which winning is everything.
Interestingly, in this season, Jeetu Bhaiya is also fighting his own battles. Kota’s very own Yoda figure has taken a giant professional leap. His problems showcase the competition, not just among the students but also the teachers. Education is a cut-throat business in which each topper and each teacher who can produce a topper impact the bottom-line. In one scene, Keshav Maheshwari declares that his institute is worth 1. 6 billion dollars.
Season one of Kota Factory was written by Abhishek Yadav, Sandeep Jain and Saurabh Khanna, who is also the show’s co-creator. Saurabh and Abhishek return for season two and are joined by Puneet Batra and Manoj Kalwani. Thankfully, the writing team doesn’t attempt to replicate the highlights of season one, like Vaibhav’s superb rant against inorganic chemistry. But they also aren’t able to create anything equally sparkling. You remember that scene in which Vaibhav brings cake for his friends and one of them, Meena assumes that it must be Vaibhav’s birthday. When he finds out that it isn’t, Meena says: Tum ameer log kisi bhi din cake kha lete ho kya? Nothing in season 2 matches the comical sadness of that.
The character arcs are a little flatter. The issues – insecurity, larger existential questions about IIT, romantic crushes, illness, burnout, sexuality – seem slightly more designed, almost as though the narrative was retrofitted into the problem. Jeetu Bhaiya’s motivational speeches veer dangerously close to being predictable. The female characters – Shivangi, Vartika, Meenal – get more screen space. Shivangi, played nicely by Ahsaas Channa, continues to be the firebrand who voices what everyone else is feeling but Vartika and Meenal have less depth. In one episode, Vaibhav’s mother arrives – she is written as an all-caring, cooking, loving cliché. Jeetu Bhaiya tells Vaibhav that he can take her for granted because mummiyon ko bura-wura nahi lagta. This might be true for many mummies but is also uncomfortably old school.
The dramatic progression wobbles and just when your interest starts to wane, Raghav and the writers reel you back in with a terrific climactic episode 5, which takes place on result day. Vaibhav, Meena and the third bestie, Uday flit through town, taking in Kota’s ‘result ka mahaul.’ There is triumph and tragedy, rendered in exquisite details – like readymade posters, which are plastered all over town as ranks are declared. The kid who doesn’t make it becomes the backside. There’s the war room, presided over by Keshav, in which teachers glued to computers shout out their victories. It’s education as a blood-sport. We also get the signature top-angle drone shot – this time, centerstage is occupied by a BMW, which will be given to the number one ranker. His better life has already begun.
What continues to propel the series is the seeming ordinariness of the leads. These kids are the polar opposite of the buffed and polished teenagers we see in Bollywood films like the Student of the Year franchise. An image of Vaibhav, Meena and Uday riding a scooter might echo 3 Idiots but their world is far less sanitised. The boys and girls in Kota Factory are awkward, clumsy and confused and that is part of their charm. Mayur More as Vaibhav, Ranjan Raj as Meena, Alam Khan as Uday and Revathi Pillai as Vartika Ratawal are absolute naturals. As is Jitendra Kumar as Jeetu Bhaiya. Jitendra combines likeability with ease. There is no strain in his performance.
Ultimately, what makes this series so watchable and relatable is that it locates and celebrates the humanity in this ordinariness. Despite the relentless grind of the factory, joy, sweetness and camaraderie seep through. I look forward to spending time in Kota again.
You can watch Kota Factory on Netflix India.