Access isn’t everything. The Netflix documentary Alma Matters benefits from the fact that its directors were once students at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. Pratik Patra and Prashant Raj get the institute’s administrators, teachers and students to open up about academic pressure and the relevance of the curriculum. We watch the students beyond the classroom, shooting the breeze, participating in extra-curricular activities, swearing and smoking and drinking.
Yet, the filmmakers appear to have been too close to the material and too fond of their alma mater to provide a curious outsider’s perspective. Alma Matters wades into the culture at IIT-Kharagpur but not deep enough. Several questions remain unexplored and unanswered – casteism, the benefits of reservations for marginal groups, the role played by pushy parents. However, what does emerge is self-awareness bordering on cynicism.
For the bright sparks enrolled here after having cracked the toughest entrance examination in the country, gaining admission to the IIT appears to have been a goal in itself. The first couple of years are spent on finding their feet and the next two years on wandering into whichever department will have them and then preparing for the all-important placement interview that will give them enviable jobs in A-list companies at high salaries, students tell the filmmakers.
It’s important to wear a suit in the world, you get respected for it, one student sagely says.
The amount of preparation we make for the entrance examination proves that there’s no such thing as a born genius, another student observes. All it takes is tonnes of hard work.
The three-episode documentary opens with a bit of background on IIT-Kharagpur. Spread across 2,100 acres in Bengal, the campus is an oasis for most students and an open-air prison for others. Having swotted days and nights to get in, many of the students appear already spent. It’s a question of staying on course for four years and catching up with other types of learning, such as forming a band or participating in dramatics.
Among the alumni interviewed for the series is the comedian and web series director Biswa Kalyan Rath. He watched “loads of movies” throughout the first year of his course, he tells the directors. Another student says he spent his time on campus hanging out at the music society.
Among the issues faced by the institute is overcrowded classrooms. The importance of the institutes in the Indian imagination, and the ticket that an IIT degree provides its holder, means that student enrolment has only increased in recent years.
A curriculum originally designed for small batches of 40-odd students is dispensed in cavernous classrooms with well over 200 students, each brushed up against the other. Eye contact is impossible and we are not equipped to handle so many pupils, a professor says in the film.
The strain of keeping up with the syllabus and intense competitiveness to get the best jobs lead to the events explored in the third episode. After wasting a lot of time on an annual Diwali festival celebration, Alma Matters touches on student suicides – a subject more fruitfully explored by Abhay Kumar’s 2015 documentary Placebo, about the pressure-cooker atmosphere at one of the country’s leading medical colleges.
However, the issue of why students are killing themselves is cursorily explored in Alma Matters. It’s a complicated answer, several students tell the filmmakers – yet another lost opportunity in a documentary that goes past IIT-Kharagpur’s gates and then doesn’t quite know in which direction to head.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.