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On Kota Factory's Self-Help Evangelism
Kota Factory is designed to be both relatable and aspirational. It is the latter part that rankles.
Between 2011 and 2015, at least 72 students had died by suicide in Kota, a coaching hub to prepare for engineering and medical competitive examinations. By mid-2017, the numbers of suicides were around 12 per month. A disaster was looming, but more persuasively for those in charge, it was a PR crisis.
Every year, around 150,000 students live and study in Kota among the 40+ institutes to prepare for the JEE and NEET entrance examinations, to study and become engineers and doctors respectively — dislocated from their homes, often padded by loans and their mother’s collateralized jewelry, into a life that is built around exams and practice exams, lectures and remedials. It’s an industry at the end of the day, a city that was built around the promise of success, and an eternal churn. In 1985 when the late Vinod Kumar Bansal — an engineer, diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and thus, totally paralyzed — coached students around his dining table, he did not know that he was writing into India’s academic history a new chapter of relentless, reckless success. One of his students in his first batch cracked the JEE, and his name and fame grew. He opened Bansal Classes, and Kota metastasized.
The students are merely cyclical, dispensable cogs, easily slotted into categories of competence — students have to give exams and are slotted into classes based on their ranking — and thus, suicide is a word that mocks their bottom-lines. Would parents want to send their children into a death camp?
Several hostels decided that something must be done about this. So, they attached sensors and alarms to ceiling fans from where the students would hang themselves.
It was made clear, that the problem was not why students took the step of ending their lives, but that they took the step to do so. If the problem is formulated with such messy myopia, then the solution too would be meek and easy. It won’t be about re-thinking the structures and strictures that led to the student, in that late teenage haze of debilitating doubt and flamboyant ego, to make this life-altering, and indeed, life-ending, decision. It will be, instead, about cutting their access to suicide.
Every time I am told that the IIT-IIM pipeline has produced the smartest people in our country I think of the story my uncle told me of this IIT-IIM alum, an acquaintance of his, who did not know how to use a kettle, and was quite comfortable with this lack of knowledge. I am also reminded of a colleague, a collegial and kind woman, an IIT-IIM graduate, who insisted that women’s reservation in IIT would be a bad idea. (In 2016, only 8% of the students at IIT were women. The following year, the policy of supranumerary reservation began — where they increased the number of seats to accommodate the increase in the number of women, so the number of unreserved seats remain the same. In 2020, this reservation quota was increased to 20%.)
At IIT she noted — and this was before the reservation — she already felt like she was undeserving of being there, the off-hand comments, the sexist insinuations. She insisted that if now there was an active policy of reserving seats, it would only make things worse for women’s mental health. The point was not just to be at IIT, but to also feel like you deserve to be in IIT, and while you can wield some control over the former, you have absolutely no control over the latter. The point wasn’t to change people’s perceptions, but to build yourself within it. I did not know what to tell her, because all my beliefs in favour of reservation were structural. But what if people did not want to re-think the structure at all?
The Viral Fever’s (TVF) Kota Factory, the tonally and visually buttery-monochromatic depiction of student life at Kota, is a naive reformulation of the same question. It leaves the structures untouched while lending to those lumbering under the weight of the structures some reprieve. Jitu Bhayya, the physics sir at the coaching institute becomes that charismatic, sensitive, and supportive reprieve for the students often shackled by a decision they never had complete control over — to give so much of your life, your time, your mental health to something you are not even sure you want. Jitu Bhayya is the engineering student’s version of that English teacher.
But while that English teacher pushed you to move outside the class, read books beyond the syllabus, words in the dictionary beyond your grade level, a push that comes from a resignation to the rotting syllabus, Jitu’s aim is to do everything to lasso the student into the syllabus and grind their teeth into the practice problems. He will tell you to have no shame masturbating, he will tell you to call your mother to stay with you when you fall sick. His method is verbose care, his solutions are sermons and semantics.
If you tell him that it is your ‘dream’ to go to IIT, he will monologue the meaning of ‘dream’ as opposed to the meaning of ‘aim’, and will tell you that you should, from hereon, say that IIT is your ‘aim’, because ‘aim’ is an actionable word. If you are his student, you will nod, impressed, inspired. (Inspired nevertheless, the student whom he tells this to tries to take her own life at the end of Season 2.) If you call yourself a loser, he will contradict you, saying you went to war and those who lose in war are warriors not losers. But the problem with Kota isn’t semantics. The problem is Kota itself.
The head of the biggest coaching institute in the show addresses an audience of boys and girls, and yet references only successful “men”, and the idea of a “beautiful wife” as a tantalizing post-graduate prospect. Unless he is addressing a group of marriage-centric lesbians, something curdles. But this erasure of women is casual, underhanded, and intended by the makers (I hope) to speak to the misogyny that inflects the education of the “smartest” among us. When the students see a suave BMW 5 Series being awarded to the JEE All India Rank 1 holder, they note with awe how the topper will now go to college in his air condition car, in style, but then in the same breath, they poke fun, “Par kya faida, IIT mein ladkiyan hoti nahin hai”. Of what use is the car is there are no women in IIT to be impressed by it?
I don’t want to pretend like the show is unaware of this. It certainly is — the “Factory” in the name, the episode titles labouring the conveyer belt attitude to education, the acknowledgement of suicide. But I do want to look at how they position Jitu Bhayya as a hero, but this is not a hero against but within the system. This is a TVF-speciality, where the aestheticize a rotting system — it might be UPSC aspirants, the deadening impulse of corporate cubicles, or Kota itself. It exposes the rot, but tells you stories of success within it. There is something simultaneously relatable and aspirational about these shows. It is the aspirational part that makes me uneasy.
This, then brings me to ask how to tell stories of rotting systems?
Should we buy into Ali Abdali’s YouTube channel with videos like “The Best Productivity Hacks of All Time” “How To Sleep PRODUCTIVELY” “How To Remember Everything You Read — 6 Tips in 60 Seconds”? (There is also a video summarizing James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a book but also a genre I can’t believe people take seriously, with quotes like “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement” and “Good habits make time your ally. Bad habits make time your enemy”.) To make productivity aspirational or to problematize it? To succeed within a system (or watch videos that promise success within a system) or to put the very system into question?
If we care about the former, like Jitu Bhayya does so much, we will be stuck in semantics, like James Clear is, asking us to not focus on “goals” but “systems”. Here is a goal for you: Dismantle the system.
I’ll turn our attention briefly to Placebo, a 2016 documentary where director Abhay Kumar tries to make sense of his brother Sahil, an AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi) student, who in a perfectly sterile moment, decided to smash his arm through a glass window of a car, ending up with nerve damage and loss of motor control in his right arm — his main arm. Kumar wants to ask, what drives someone mad? And can madness be temporary, just a flick of fire that is doused just as it burns? So he goes to live in the AIIMS hostel and films the vaunted, haunted student body.
It’s a film that looks at rot as rot, and success within that rot as success inflected by failure. There is a pathetic quality to the blind aspiration the students have to just be at AIIMS. It is so sincere, so innocent, and so blind to consequences. There is a self-awareness about this pathetic-ness. There is a darkness that girds the storytelling, as if the hostel is haunted. Kumar takes long shots of the hostel from the terrace, and we often see a boy’s silhouette just vibrating. Students die, students give up, students succeed. There is a deadpan tone that is lugged throughout. There is an over-seriousness that propels meaningless, meandering monologues. You think for a second that this might be the person who will become the head of surgery at a hospital you might find yourself in. You worry. Are the smartest people in our country demented?
“Anil Meena, a 20-year old student in Hostel 6 committed suicide. I am surprised to find out no one actually knows who he is. I find out that Anil was under academic stress as he was failing for the second consecutive year. He tried seeking help from the director of AIIMS, but was denied meeting all 4 times he tried. The next time anybody saw him was hanging from the ceiling fan in his hostel room.” — Placebo
A few years ago, after a long week at work, I decided to go to a local documentary film festival in Bhubaneswar. Through that day, I wove in and out of sleep in that dark, air conditioned theater. Invariably, one of the films that played, whose name I can’t recollect, was about Kota. A student, a topper who made it out of that world with flying colours, is invited back to the coaching class so he can do a Q and A with the students, all bustling with excitement and inspiration. One of the students asks him about his schedule, and he rattles tuitions, classes, homework, study, and review. One of the students asks him what his hobbies were, and the topper, the winner, the vanquishing personality looked confused. A moment later, he innocently replied, “Nothing”, and the whole student body laughed and clapped for him. Something tugged inside me. A man with no hobbies, a society with no pleasure, a civilization with no future.
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