Alma Matters review: Inside the IIT Dream
Alma Matters is a docuseries offering new perspectives
By: Sonia Chopra
Critic's Rating: 2.5/5
Monday 17 May 2021
Alma Matters review: Inside the IIT Dream
Pratik Patra, Prashant Raj
Shubham Agarwal, Kevin Banker, Lokesh Deshmukh, Mukul Sankule, Kartikeya Singh, Adarsh Upadhyay
The docuseries offers a few interesting perspectives, but misses the mark overall!
“There are only two types of engineers—the ones who are IITians, and those who wish they were IITians.” This pompous statement marks the beginning of the three-part docuseries, which attempts to show us student life in IIT Kharagpur. The series then informs us that Kharagpur was established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 to ‘show the world how far India could go’, adding that the IIT acceptance rate is more stringent than Ivy-league universities.
Director Pratik Patra and Prashant Raj are IIT alumni, and the insider’s gaze shows. Unfortunately, it often leaves out outsiders with no connection to the IIT experience. And so, the series, which is undoubtedly interesting in parts, unfolds like a family movie with inside jokes. So enclosed is the storytelling that interviewees are introduced as ‘Ashok Da—Azad Hall’ which make no sense to an outsider.
For folks connected to IIT, however, this film is likely to stir up emotions and memories— the pressures and competitiveness, the bonding, the cultural festival called Ilu, the tradition of making elaborate rangolis for Diwali and so on.
The series interviews students, ex-students, and teachers. “Everyone wants their child to go to IIT and get a job after five years. No one thinks of what happens to the student in those five years,” reflects one student. IIT alumni and currently a popular comedian/director Biswa Kalyan Rath claims that he barely studied and spent time watching movies during his time there.
The students often refer to themselves as the ‘cream of India’, but go on to rue about an overpacked class where most students are clueless and have to resort to rote learning for high scores. This is not the only time the film takes you back to the movie 3 Idiots.
Though this is discussed sparingly, we see students rattled when five students commit suicide within a year. “Our parents have kept us alive and healthy for 20 odd years, and this system can’t do that for even five years. Doesn’t that mean that the system is failing us?” demands one student.
When interviewed, some attribute the high suicide rate to many reasons including the pressures and the enclosed nature of the campus. One student called it an ‘echo chamber’ and said that if they were allowed to go out and socialize, perhaps the pressure would be less.
For a film that rues women students not getting their due in IIT, it’s disappointingly male-focussed. Sadly, the film is the victim of the very mentality it criticizes so vociferously.
The film focusses on mostly male students and shows their bonding, pressures while giving interviews and placements. By the end of the film, we hear from perhaps just two female students (who speak of sexism, not their career paths). We are not given any insight into their challenges, friendships, and where they got placed at the end of the course.
The male students get away with a lot in the film— gendered abuses that are mistranslated in English (an exact translation would be too crass), sexist jokes, and roaming around shirtless while playing a game of cards. In a way, it’s an accurate representation of what many students spoke about—the sexist culture of the institute.
There are repetitive shots of the canteen food, trees billowing in the wind, and students randomly cycling around the campus. The film would have definitely benefitted with a better screenplay and astute editing.
Things get interesting in the third part when the students gear up for placement interviews with some of the best companies in the world. We see a student go from room to room asking for shoe-polish before his interview, eventually resorting to cleaning it with water and a cloth. Post the interviews, there are celebrations and disappointments. Eventually, most of them land jobs offering big salaries, and it is heartening to see some of the students, often from modest backgrounds, giving the news of their employment to their ecstatic family. “Landing a placement is nothing less than war,” says one student.
Intermittently interesting, the docuseries misses the mark when it comes to inclusivity (student perspectives of all genders and backgrounds) and in its appeal to an audience with no connection to IIT.
Sonia Chopra is a critic, columnist and screenwriter with over 15 years of experience. She tweets on @soniachopra2
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