Alma Matters review: Netflix docuseries on IITs is insular, with a tunnel vision like its subjects

·7 min read

Language: Hindi and English

There comes a point in the first episode of the Netflix series, Alma Matters, where a student says something to the effect of "People (in IITs) don't work because they want to. They work only after they see someone else working." It's an insight that is simply worded, but one that speaks reams about the culture inside IITs and the Indian education system at large.

Set up in the 1950s in a newly independent India, the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) were earmarked as institutions to lend scientific temperament to the society, and take a young nation to newer technological heights.

Roughly seven decades later, the institutions have been reduced to a one-stop-shop for a better life. Identity of a person is reduced to their CGPA score (Chhaggi is six-pointer, Atti is an eight-pointer), or their annual package around the placements. In a society that is groomed from a young age to participate in a rat race to become 'successful', prestigious institutions like the IITs and the IIMs are considered a finishing school for the 'good life'.

However, it's also after entering an institution like this, that students (probably for the first time in their life) grapple with the eternal lie they've been fed. The rat race never ends, and it's all-consuming. One could surely theorise about 'going at their own pace' or 'opting out', but the teachings are all too ingrained to start over. This is where Pratik Patra and Prashant Raj's documentary should have begun its line of questioning, however, it lets the moment play out and silently moves on.

A lot of it also depends on how one sees Alma Matters - as a two-and-a-half-hour single documentary, or like a three-episode miniseries that Netflix has packaged it to be. The episodic structure arguably does more harm to the documentary, than good. Because the episodes themselves are broken into 'chapters', none of which seems to have the coherence of a batch going through its designated four or five years. The placements are shown in Ep Two of the series, which arguably should have been at the tail end. Instead, the series jumps back and forth without really giving us a sense of the timeline of an engineering course, the cultural experiences, it can't even find memorable characters within the batch, for the viewer to be invested in the character's journey through the course. Many faces are recycled moving from one scene to another, but not a single name is retained in the process. Their stories and experiences are really that interchangeable.

For their part, the makers do make their interviewees (mostly current and ex-students) comfortable in the setting, even occasionally sharing a cigarette with them, while hearing them open up about their deepest, darkest secrets. But the scope of enquiry remains limited. Mostly, the conversation is about the academic pressure felt by most of these 'school toppers' when they enter the college arena, and realise that there's someone smarter in the room. Always. Or how students plan on 'standing out' among an approximate 12000 students, by playing a sport, or an instrument, or both. Nothing revelatory is said here, and the questioning doesn't probe any further.

What happens to someone who doesn't make it anywhere, and how do they deal with this stamp of mediocrity in all vocations? What are the psychological implications of someone who used to be a 'star' in school, and subjected to anonymity through most of their college life? Does it hurt? Most of these students conditioned to be islands in a hyper-competitive environment, where do they learn allegiance to their hostel? Where does this brotherhood take shape? Is this also another version of the 'rat race', where everyone does it because they see so many others doing it? What happens to the ones who don't conform to the rivalry? Are they made to feel like an outcast? What's their social circle like? I really doubt if the makers thought of these questions themselves, let alone asking them.

In the episode around the institute's nervy placement process, which is the cause for sleepless nights for many students, it passionately argues that a person is much more than a CTC package they might be offered. However, it only highlights many students nervously rambling about the placement as the be-all and end-all of the entire IIT experience. Most of these students, are relieved by the end of the episode, mouthing their PPOs "13 lakhs p.a", "18 lakhs p.a" to each other. It doesn't talk to a student who wasn't going home with a job in hand or someone who didn't sit in the placements, for whatever reason. The documentary meant to put a face on the multi-crore paycheque headlines we keep reading about in leading newspapers, accidentally dents its own cause by furthering the myth around IITs being the Indian students' goldrush.

In the three-part miniseries, the documentary makes no allusion to caste, a prevalent issue in most of public institutions. Especially, in a post-Rohith Vemula era. Something is said about the inherent sexism within student elections, and one girl candidate chosen as the General Secretary (Sports) is offered as a 'solution' to the problem.

Now, given its shiny and colourful production, I wasn't expecting Alma Matters to have any of the raw intensity or 'truth' of Abhay Kumar's Placebo, a documentary on coping with the unimaginable pressures of being a student on the AIIMS campus (available for rent on YouTube). But in Alma Matters, there's no talk of a 'fight' or a public confrontation between hostels or departments. A segment around student suicides almost looks like an obligatory post-script, the state of a student's mental health is barely probed. Some people talk about the anxiety of social media further adding to the pressures of creating the illusion of a 'perfect life' and former students blaming the 100 Mbps Internet speed for the cases of self-harm and suicides. They might be partly right, but both the interview subjects and the makers seem to be a little out of their depth discussing the issue. No senior member of the faculty or a psychologist is asked about the worsening state of mental health amongst Indian students and young professionals, including IIT students. Nobody asks about the higher rate of burnout amongst those in their 20s.

Ever since Chetan Bhagat wrote Five Point Someone, several others like Raju Hirani's 3 Idiots (an adaptation of Bhagat's novel), The Viral Fever (TVF) and Hindi films like Chhichhore have fetishised the hallowed campuses of IITs, for their very own version of a #relatable story. While, not all of these might be reverential, most of them are affectionate portraits. They address the surface banter, the liberal smoking/drinking culture on campus, the inherent competition in their vicinity. However, none of them let authenticity come in the way of an entertaining story. If these films and shows are to believed, some of the smartest minds in the country do not indulge in debates around politics, or any kind 'right' or wrong' outside the campus. All they keep blabbering about are scores, placement offers, companies, 'fundas', and discussing ways to ace an exam. Alma Matters is no different, failing to reach for anything beyond the simplest psychological truths about these kids. Alma Matters is an inside peek into IIT culture, like Sanju was Sanjay Dutt's official biopic. Neither can handle the truth.

Alma Matters streams on Netflix.

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