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Illuminating the IIT life in 'Alma Matters'

This Netflix non-fiction series throws some light on the experience of students at IIT—but what’s left out tells its own tale

A still from 'Alma Matters'
A still from 'Alma Matters'

Nine years ago, I exited IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Kharagpur for the last time, having survived a five-year “integrated MSc” course in applied geology. It was so hot (47 degrees Celsius) the road ended up scalding my feet through my slippers, indignant red blotches that I discovered at the end of the 10-minute walk from the hostel to the college’s main gate. To this day, thinking about my old hostel is a potential trigger.

The soul shrivels and the soles burn. There’s no shame in admitting a mistake, even a colossal one: IIT wasn’t compatible with my values (I am allergic to hyper-competitive people) or the kind of education (eccentric, interdisciplinary, wildly miscellaneous) I dreamt of back then. It just did not work.

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Netflix’s uber-sincere new docuseries Alma Matters: Inside The IIT Dream (directed by Pratik Patra and Prashant Raj) is about those who did make it work, in their own unique ways. Across three crisply edited episodes of 40-50 minutes each, Alma Matters aims to deliver a ringside view of life at the first-ever IIT (founded 1951), one of India’s best-known science/technology colleges. Both directors and several crew members are Kharagpur alumni and have been granted an impressive degree of access to students, professors, classrooms, hostels, football grounds and so on.

Because of this, the first one-and-a-half episodes breeze past with barely a misstep. We meet students from all manner of backgrounds and aspirations. There’s the son of a shopkeeper who talks about his father’s desire to see his children enter “the officer class, wearing a suit”. There’s the young woman who rolls her eyes at her classmates’ sexist comments (“a girl who’s into coding?”). There’s the long-suffering mining professor who smiles ruefully about his field of study’s near-obsolescence in the institute’s hyper-charged “placements” (campus recruitment) process. That last one is a particularly significant moment and I wish the makers had spent more time with it. Those in the know are aware that the real battle-to-the-death in the world of higher education is no longer Science vs Humanities—it’s Everything Corporate-Backed vs Literally Everything Else.

Charming little touches chip away at the institute’s inscrutability. In the middle of a sequence shot inside one of the hostels, we see a wall emblazoned with a cheeky demand for “roti, kapdaa, makaan, internet aur nashaa” (food, clothing, a roof, the internet and intoxicants). A shopkeeper who has been on campus since the 1970s breaks into an endearing, toothy grin as he talks about “Illumination” or “Illu”, a Kharagpur Diwali tradition wherein students create light shows on the facades of their hostel buildings, using a gazillion diyas strung together on a framework with metallic wire.

I liked the fact that the makers correctly identify Illu as something of a cult, driven by axiomatic, self-indulgent purpose rather than any real sentiment on the part of the second-year students who slog away with the diyas and the wire. Yes, seniors supervise while juniors are essentially held hostage with a combination of groupthink, emotional manipulation and social boycotting tactics. Patra and Raj are too fond of their alma mater to spell out the truth, so they preface this segment with a crucial scene, where a student reads his horoscope in the morning papers. He says, in an offhand manner, “Keh raha hai kuch cult-wult jaisa lead karoonga (It says here that I will lead a cult or something like it, eventually)”

However, Alma Matters is on considerably shakier ground when it comes to the darker side of life at the college. The hilariously over-the-top sexism on campus receives only a cursory segment early on, and nothing after that. An overwhelming majority of IITians are and always have been against caste-based reservations; this is because most of them are not very well-read (except for scientific or technological literature) and remain beholden to the hopelessly flawed “merit” discourse, not for a moment considering the economic and social privileges hard-baked into the “merit” they speak of. And yet, Alma Matters steers clear of the matter altogether.

Barely a couple of weeks ago, Seema Singh, an associate professor, was suspended by IIT, Kharagpur because of her shockingly casteist Zoom rant addressed to a class of SC/ST/OBC/PwD students (and their parents). Imagine how timely Alma Matters would have felt had the makers discussed caste-based discrimination on campus, interviewing Dalit, Adivasi and/or Bahujan students.

Because caste is conspicuous via absence here, the segments tackling student suicides also aren’t nearly as effective as they could have been. By any standards, suicide is a huge problem at IIT, Kharagpur. During my five years on campus (2007-12), there were a total of seven deaths by suicide, and this incidence rate has hardly improved since. SC, ST, OBC and other minority students suffer the most in this context: look at what happened to Fathima Latheef of IIT, Madras (died, 2019) or Aniket Ambhore of IIT, Bombay (died, 2014).

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Over the last decade or so, there have been a handful of films discussing student suicides at some of India’s most famous colleges, including IIT. These include Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009), Nitesh Tiwari’s Chhichhore (2019) as well as Abhay Kumar’s harrowing experimental documentary Placebo (2014). Of these three, Placebo is the one that has proven the hardest to forget. Set in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, it’s like a waking nightmare for anyone who has felt trapped on a cruel, autocratic campus where the odds are stacked against minorities and non-conformists. I do not intend to compare Alma Matters to Placebo, for they are very different films. But Patra and Raj could have done with some of Placebo’s inventiveness and darker tonality, especially during the suicide segments.

On the whole, Alma Matters is a praiseworthy effort. Hell, it even made me retrieve a memory I had almost certainly repressed. I remembered that on my last day in Kharagpur, soon after I discovered the red blotches on the soles of my feet, I felt something very strongly. A sense of intangible loss, one I did not fully understand until a couple of years later, when I read the concluding lines of Sabbath’s Theater, arguably Philip Roth’s greatest novel.

“How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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