Directors: Pratik Patra, Prashant Raj
Cinematography: Abhineet Chute, Ashay Gangwar
Edited by: Shivajee Biswanath, Satyam Sai
Starring: Biswa Kalyan Rath, Shubham Agarwal, Lokesh Deshmukh, Mukul Sankule, Kevin Banker, Adarsh Upadhyay, Kartikeya Singh
Streaming on: Netflix

A decade in the past, a three-part documentary collection about IIT Kharagpur and its scholar tradition – warts and all – might need been a pathbreaking leveller in an age of exaggerated campus fairytales. But in 2021, after years of TVF and Streaming course correction of the higher-learning ecosystem, it’s Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream that conversely looks like a behind-the-scenes peek into the making of the fictional campus story. Perhaps it is a testomony to each the dramatization of middle-Indian lecturers and its bond-affirming actuality. Or maybe it’s simply the narrative fatigue of life. Either approach, this inventive obsession with the toxicity of India’s favorite dream-selling hamster wheel is lengthy overdue, with the tales now being informed by passionate deflectors and ‘survivors’ of the grind. Nostalgia is an inherent a part of them as a result of, as one scholar admits, for higher or worse it’s these five-to-seven years that outline a lifelong sense of identification. 

Alma Matters doesn’t observe college students a lot as characters within the nation’s premier engineering establishment. The camaraderie is acquainted. Their stage of self-awareness is astounding – it’s like they’re watching the tragicomic contradictions and ironies of a rat-race film, critiquing it in addition to starring in it abruptly. They show such sharp observational expertise and philosophical leanings that it’s no surprise a few of them ultimately embrace stand-up comedy, writing and storytelling. For occasion, one of many college students notes how orientation utterly subverts the artwork of mendacity (“you look into their eyes and lie instead of looking down”). Later he explains – in equally vibrant language – about the way it’s not household (“ghar-waalo”) however the historical past of house (“ghar”) that’s the supply of crippling strain. That it’s their lower-middle-class existence, not the dad and mom themselves, driving the do-or-die ambitions. Another off-handedly notes how the prison-like two years of JEE preparation (“the three-storey building has classes on the third floor, mess on the second and rooms on the first: study, eat, sleep”) immediate the burnt-out college students to deal with the IIT campus as their freedom land. These insights – usually delivered in self-depreciatory and deadpan tones – permit the documentary to run with no narrator or voice-over. The title is a play on the format: many of the speaking heads are ex-students (considered one of whom is star creator-comic Biswa Kalyan Rath), whose hindsight-drenched views present bittersweet context to the immediacy of the 2018-19 batches. 

It’s disarming to see the college being frank in regards to the limitations of the system. In the opening episode, the second the professors communicate in regards to the 300-400 robust dimension of the courses nowadays – admitting that it’s troublesome to afford any scholar the person consideration they deserve – your coronary heart sinks a bit as a viewer. You instantly think about the implications of neglection: the tucked-away headlines about scholar suicides, the stark loneliness of not feeling hopeless, the shortage of steering and father figures. When a tragedy is examined within the ultimate episode, it nearly feels inevitable. Even although the collection doesn’t take pleasure in flashbacks, you mentally hear snippets of the professor’s voices. That it comes on the again of a celebration solely emphasizes the shock – the opening phrases of a classmate’s interview (“every time someone commits suicide…”) reveal a narrative while not having to inform it. 

This portion – particularly the best way it’s visually designed (morphing into monochromatic gloom) – jogged my memory of Abhay Kumar’s Placebo. Unlike Placebo, the best way Alma Matters “addresses” the suicide downside feels slightly tokenistic, as if the makers had been ticking off an essential field earlier than concluding the collection. The significance of Placebo was derived from its sense of discovery and curiosity. Kumar began by merely following his youthful brother as a medical scholar in AIIMS Delhi. But his experiment rapidly changed into an undercover year-long keep on campus, the place he allowed his digicam to observe not simply the scholars but additionally the chaos of their heads. The documentary stays open to shape-shifting, thereafter chancing upon new instructions and conflicts. The pressing guerilla vibe of Placebo is what’s lacking from Alma Matters – every thing appears to be like too structured, deliberate and pre-conceived. The first episode juxtaposes the historical past of IIT in opposition to the current, touching upon how profession trajectories are altered via a randomized admission course of, earlier than wrapping up with the 1:9 gender ratio and inherent sexism of the setting. The digicam finds all the correct occasions (the gymkhana elections, placement week) to cowl, and possibly that’s the issue. There aren’t any out-of-syllabus offshoots, no investigative rigour. The result’s oddly superficial, closely reliant on the perceptive college students to spout life-hacks that the collection itself can not appear to convey. It has the aura of a “real picture” portrait, however one can nearly hear the questions being requested by the makers to get the solutions they assume viewers need to hear. 

I believe Alma Matters might need revealed a solution, dispelling all uncertainty and fable, if there have been a fourth half

That being mentioned, I like that the collection chooses to alter order, ending on a barely sombre be aware as a substitute of sticking with the scholars’ timeline. The tensions and fortunately ever afters of placement week outline the second episode, whereas tragedy tinges the third and ultimate one – a reminder that schooling is actually a humbling and soul-sucking privilege on this nation. The third episode opens with an extended stretch of scholars tirelessly making ready for the annual competition. This goes on for some time – a blur of nights, clay lamps, directions, rangoli colors. The motivations are unclear. One of them mentions that the wrestle will likely be price it for the split-second of pleasure when the lights come on. He’s proper: the result’s lovely, and nearly a passing metaphor for the way the scholars – dishevelled and paranoid and messy – should really feel on the finish of their lengthy and incoherent journey. Like an immaculate image of sunshine. The picture lasts for a fleeting minute, after which it’s gone. A thunderstorm takes over. 

The final shot – of two graduates strolling away from the digicam right into a inexperienced area, earlier than pausing and looking out round – appears to be like staged however needed. The figures are a blur, they usually look utterly unprepared for the vastness of the world past the campus. “Now what?” appears to be the sentiment. But I believe Alma Matters might need revealed a solution, dispelling all uncertainty and fable, if there have been a fourth half. Maybe the aftermath, too, can be neatly segregated into three chapters. After all, group is the cornerstone of inventive educational success. 

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