An Indian web series follows a teenager who joins a coaching institute that prepares students for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance examination. The protagonist deals with intense academic pressure and a colourful hostel experience.
No, this is not Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Laakhon Mein Ek, but the premise of The Viral Fever’s Kota Factory, the first episode of which was released on the TVFPlay app and YouTube on Tuesday. Creator Saurabh Khanna (Yeh Meri Family) was expecting comparisons to Laakhon Mein Ek, but is not frazzled by them. His series, set in India’s coaching hub of Kota in Rajasthan, offers a different take, Khanna said.
The first season of Laakhon Mein Ek, which was released in 2017, followed an artistic 15-year-old boy who is forced to join a coaching institute in Vishakhapatnam. Hemant Gaba’s documentary, An Engineered Dream, similarly examines the intense pressures faced by aspirants to India’s topmost engineering institutes.
TVF’s show tries to establish that not all is wrong in this ultra-competitive world. “The popular narrative surrounding Kota and IIT preparation in Indian pop culture is that parents torment their children by pushing them through the process and it’s a one-sided representation,” Khanna told Scroll.in. “It’s not like everyone is in Kota with a passion other than clearing the exam. There are also studious kids, but people who study aren’t celebrated in the country. We make films on mavericks, but never something like A Beautiful Mind. We have developed this tendency to portray people who study and get nine-to-five jobs as these drones whose passions have been sucked away. It’s like there’s not a story in their life unless they quit their jobs and climb the Himalayas.”
Khanna’s insights come from having spent time in the scientific and creative worlds. He is an alumnus of IIT-Kanpur and the Film and Television Institute of India. Most of the creative team of Kota Factory are IIT graduates, Khanna said. TVF too was founded by IIT alumni Arunabh Kumar, Amit Golani, and Biswapati Sarkar.
Directed by Raghav Subbu and shot in black-and-white by Jerin Paul, Kota Factory follows 16-year-old Vaibhav (Mayur More) who moves to Rajasthan from Itarsi in Madhya Pradesh. A topper in his school, Vaibhav realises that everyone at Kota is as academically strong as him. “But through hard work, passion, and by paying his dues, Vaibhav tries to make himself better,” Khanna said.
Among the supporting actors is TVF star Jitendra Kumar, as one of Vaibhav’s teachers at the institute. Like almost all the TVF series and sketches featuring Kumar, he is known here too as “Jeetu bhaiya”.
Jitendra Kumar, just like his colleagues, has also been an IIT graduate who studied at Kota.
“Teaching is a very humble, underrated profession, where those who practise it are not that high up on the social ladder,” Khanna said. “That’s not how it is in Kota. Teachers are heavily paid and they are, consequently, under pressure to extract the best from students. Jeetu is one such teacher, a well-to-do guy with a taste for fine things in life. He is a motivator, a friend, a guide, and does not do lip service to make a student feel good. When Vaibhav requests to be allowed to move up to the elite students’ batch, Jeetu snaps at him to not beg.”
Perhaps, the only contrast to Laakhon Mein Ek’s first season is that show’s critical look at the Kota culture. Both series even share the same actor in a similar kind of role. Alam Khan, who starred as the notorious Chudail in the earlier series, plays an equally mischievous student, Uday, in Kota Factory.
“This was unintentional,” Khanna said. “We began work on the series seriously in November 2018, long after Laakhon Mein Ek, and through auditions, Alam turned out as the guy who was the best fit for the role. But I think no one realised or kept note of what he had done before. Anyway, he was superb in the audition, maybe because he had already been through this journey.”
Khanna does not look at the mushrooming of IIT-coaching centres in and outside Kota as a matter of concern. “IIT is a premier institute that offers unbelievable opportunities to meritorious students in a country that is fairly low on the Human Development Index,” Khanna said. “Now, no one will prepare you for it in school. School is concerned about your class 11-12 results. Hence, these specialised institutes are helpful. And the teachers work very hard, because they know that to explain one concept, 1,000 other teachers are waiting in line. Our series also looks into the lives of teachers, which is seldom explored in stories like these.”