It seems to be easier to find a coaching institute in Kota than a sense of levity. Sample the stern warning given by a lecturer at one such institute during an orientation programme. Addressing a group of tense-looking students, the lecturer declares, you stayed inside your mother’s womb for nine months – after nine months of coaching with us, you will be reborn.

Premature deliveries have no place in Kota. Hemant Gaba’s An Engineered Dream, which will be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (July 20-24), explores the process of manufacturing the perfect candidate for the Indian Institute of Technology. The 72-minute film explores Kota’s coaching culture by following four IIT-JEE aspirants. These students, like tens of thousands of others, have come from all over India and, in some cases, from foreign countries. For close to a year, they cram up their lessons in the hope that they will get the required marks and the rank to find places in the IIT of their choice.

At least 150,000 students arrive in Kota every year to take a test regarded as one of the toughest in the world, the documentary says. The weight of expectation finds various outlets of expression. The rented rooms of the students are groaning with study books and cyclostyled notes. Notices plastered on many doors have inventive variations on the “Do not disturb” sign. One reads, “I am dead.”

The soft boards are filled with cautionary messages about the need to avoid distraction at all costs. One such message reveals a source of the immense pressure visited upon adolescents: “Think about parents”.

An Engineered Dream.
An Engineered Dream.

Gaba, who has previously made the feature Shuttlecock Boys (2011) and the documentary Japan in Nagaland (2015), was initially approached by screenwriter Gunjan Saxena to make a fictional film on the subject. “When I went to Kota for research in 2016, I figured out that this could be a documentary too,” Gaba said. He made a successful bid at Asian Pitch, an event set up by the television networks NHK and MediaCorp to find potential documentaries to fund. The documentary will be broadcast on NHK in Japan and television network in Taiwan and Korea towards the end of the year.

The filmmaker drew parallels with his own academic achievements. “I did mathematics and honours and worked in the software industry,” he said. “For 12 years of my life, I was doing something I wouldn’t have done if there were options available. I was hoping that things had changed, but they don’t seem to have, except among elite sections in a few cities in India.”

An Engineered Dream was shot in 2016 and 2017. The documentary includes images that jumped out at Gaba when he first visited Kota – the rows and rows of billboards advertising coaching centres, the number of hostels and apartments available for rent, the spread of food kiosks and auto rickshaws, and the long lines of students filing away silent to their respective destinations. “What struck me more than the billboards were the crowds of students walking down the roads without speaking to each other or laughing,” Gaba recalled.

There were also cycles – lots of them. A recurring image is of a cycle stand at one of the bigger coaching institutes, which fills up with thousands of two-wheelers in a matter of minutes.

An Engineered Dream.
An Engineered Dream.

Gaba examines Kota’s pressure-cooker world through four case studies. One student is a topper who seems destined for greatness, or, at the very least, a seat at one of the IITs. A good boy who is accompanied by his parents, this student knows when to use his brain and when not to. When asked by Gaba about his plans for the next few months, the teenager waits for his father to prompt him at every step.

Another student, who is taking the test for the third time, is preoccupied with shooting videos of himself and his friends. “When stress gets the better of you, death is an option,” he says in one of the videos.

In 2017, several hostels in Kota decided to attach sensors and alarms to ceiling fans after a string of suicides. At least 72 students committed suicide between 2011 and 2015, according to one report. In 2017, the figure stood at 12 by the month of July.

“All the kids are from different institutes,” Gaba said. “We screened more than a hundred kids, and we asked the ones we had selected to check with their parents. In some cases, the parents declined to let their kids be filmed. In other cases, students backed out after a few days of filming because it was eating into their time.”

Gaba and his crew had to ensure that they shot only during down-time. No sit-down interviews were scheduled once the courses started.

Although some of the coaching centre owners were also interviewed, Gaba decided to keep the focus on the students. Access was a problem, and given the profits attached to the private tutorial culture, it was nearly impossible to find a coaching centre owner who would admit that the Kota model had any problems.

“Coaching centres in Kota want the maximum number of kids in IIT so that they can get more students the next year and make more money,” Gaba observed. “I saw some things that I didn’t put in the film – like these two kids who were in celebration parades thrown by two different institutes because they had been paid by each of them.”

The threat of self-harm and possibly lasting psychological damage is brought up at a public function addressed by Rajasthan’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje Scindia. Something is missing, it’s lonely, one student says, but the question is drowned out in the clamour of the event.

When a student, who is one of Gaba’s case studies, receives a poor rank, she weeps on the phone to her mother, “Why me, why always me?” There’s no one to give her a comforting answer in Kota, the place where empathy is missing from the syllabus.

Hemant Gaba.
Hemant Gaba.