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Fear and loathing in the Indian classroom

A batch of recent films and shows confirms the fault lines within Indian education: rising costs, never-ending pressure and the largely unregulated growth of private players

A still from 'Kota Factory'. Image courtesy Netflix
A still from 'Kota Factory'. Image courtesy Netflix

Last month at the cinema, I was wiping away tears during a scene in All India Rank, writer-comedian Varun Grover’s directorial debut. Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), trying his best to negotiate the high-pressure world of IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Examination) coaching, has just lost one of his friends to suicide in Kota, Rajasthan. His father, R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan), a taskmaster who once asked Vivek to study till the ends of his “maanviya kshamtaa” (human capacity), has finally softened. Floodgates broke for me when Singh tells his son that it’s alright if he doesn’t clear the JEE, that this one examination would not be the definitive moment of his life.

How could this not move me? I saw so much of my own father in Singh. Both mild-mannered, polite-but-firm men of Nehruvian sensibilities, working their whole lives for state governments, heavily invested in their children’s education. Both even speak Hindi with similar, diffuse-UP-Bihar lilt. Only my father (an IIT graduate himself) never once insisted that I study harder, during the time I was preparing for JEE. What took Singh a long time to accept grudgingly was obvious to my father from day one: some children don’t react well to fear or pressure and cannot, therefore, be scared or browbeaten into academic excellence.

Set in the late 1990s, All India Rank is the third education-centric Bollywood film in recent months. And if you look at these three films, specifically the depicted plight of the students, a pattern dominated by fear and pressure emerges. October saw Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail, starring Vikrant Massey as real-life IPS officer Manoj Kumar Sharma, who overcame considerable socioeconomic odds and family difficulties to clear the much-vaunted UPSC entrance examinations. In November came Soumendra Padhi’s Farrey, where Niyati (Alizeh Agnihotri), an underprivileged scholarship student at an elite high school, devises an ingenious system of cheating-via-hand-gestures for rich kids who are seeking admission in Oxford or an Ivy League without putting in the work.

For these three simulacra of the “average Indian student”, it’s a hard slog amidst a minefield of potentially career-killing obstacles—the widespread and systematic hollowing-out of government schools and colleges, the forbidding prices and corrupt practices of private players, the lack of support structures at every stage of their journeys. Both All India Rank and 12th Fail begin their stories in the year 1997, but the stories that unfold thereafter feel wholly contemporary. This is because the aforementioned problems with our education system have been quite persistent, with the unregulated-private-sector problem having increased manifold since the 1990s. The path to success is not just lonely and arduous, it is thoroughly gate-kept and corporatised in the extreme. All of this leads, inevitably, to the spectre that All India Rank’s Vivek, Farrey’s Niyati and 12th Fail’s Manoj are confronted with: failure in entrance examinations where the odds of success are astronomical to begin with. As all three films explain at various points, in a country where such opportunities are hard to come by, entrance examinations are portals to upward mobility.

'12th Fail'
'12th Fail'

There have been a fair few education-centric films and web series in India over the last five-six years. Online content channel TVF (The Viral Fever) has led the way, with two of its most popular shows falling into this category: Kota Factory (2019) and Aspirants (2021-present), set in the worlds of IIT-JEE and UPSC coaching, respectively. The first season of Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Laakhon Mein Ek (2017; on Amazon Prime Video), also depicted beleaguered IIT-JEE aspirants at a high-pressure coaching institute. Dice Media’s Operation MBBS (2020-present; Amazon Prime Video) and Ekta Kapoor’s Medically Yourrs (2019; JioCinema) follow the misadventures of medical students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. The Netflix docu-series Alma Matters: Inside The IIT Dream (2021) presented an unprecedented level of access to the boys’ hostels at IIT Kharagpur. The Hritik Roshan movie Super 30 (2019) was a heavily dramatised version of a real-life story about coaching underprivileged Bihari kids for the IIT-JEE.

The abundance of these stories within a relatively short timespan has meant that education is its own small subgenre now. And there’s space here for frothy, feel-good underdog stories, emotionally dense rags-to-riches stories, cautionary tales about class divides, and so much more. All India Rank is a coming-of-age story that invites the viewer to stop and smell the flowers. Tonally it is very different from the TVF shows, which are much more focused on romanticising the grind. Last year itself, there were two high-quality additions to this thriving subgenre. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Netflix series Class followed a group of working-class students at a fictional elite Delhi high school. And Avinash Arun’s Hotstar series School Of Lies is about secrets, abuse and hazing at a prestigious boarding school at “Dalton Town”, the show’s fictional hill station.

In the current cycle of education-centric movies, we are told again and again that success in these all-or-nothing examinations are young people’s only shot at escaping the indignities their parents were subjected to—the system pro-actively punishing them for staying away from corruption or bootlicking. Both 12th Fail and All India Rank see the protagonist’s father being suspended from their government jobs. In 12th Fail, Ramveer Sharma (Harish Khanna), a government clerk, is suspended for refusing to co-operate with a corrupt departmental colleague. At the end of the film, the first thing Sharma says upon hearing of his son’s success is that he’ll now face down his departmental nemesis, because overnight he has become “the father of an IPS officer”. All India Rank elevates this sequence to high farce: here, R.K. Singh, an engineer working in the telecom department, is suspended after a tirangaa cake he orders for an office function features the Indian flag upside-down. Suspension via baker’s mishap, something out of an episode of Office Office or the late Jaspal Bhatti’s satirical sketch comedy Flop Show.

All of this conspires to keep these students burning the candle at both ends in lecture halls and corridors and in the case of All India Rank, cramped, claustrophobic hostel rooms in Kota. So much so that when we finally see Vivek and his friends cycling outdoors on a Kota afternoon bathed in warm sunlight, the effect is rapturous. The audience shares Vivek’s palpable sense of freedom, the joy one feels at discovering new spaces and new friends. And for the first time in the film, this teenaged boy is doing something without a clearly defined objective, without “competition”. He’s cycling away in the sun without knowing exactly where it is he and his friends are going to end up.

Freedom, at least for the students at the heart of these movies, is an extremely rare, high-value commodity, one that’s usually not available to young people unless they come from considerable wealth. 12th Fail’s Manoj, of course, is defined by his constant struggle against poverty and lack-of-resources. Following his suspension All India Rank’s Singh is struggling to make ends meet. He breaks his bank fixed deposits (FDs) and his wife runs a PCO booth in order to fund Vivek’s Kota education.

In Farrey, significantly, both of the central characters, Niyati and Aakash (Sahil Mehta) are fatherless. Niyati is an orphan brought up by Ishrat (Ronit Roy), a kindly hostel warden, while Aakash is brought up by his working-class single mom; the dad deserted the family a long time ago. What this means in practice is obvious to anybody who has experienced a middle-class Indian childhood— these kids are naturally defensive, on tenterhooks around their rich, confident classmates at “Winston International”, introduced in the movie as the single most expensive high school in India. In this particular scenario, it doesn’t matter how academically gifted the child is. We see how Aakash, a socially awkward math wizard with the slightest hint of a lisp, is teased and imitated mercilessly by the meathead rich kids in class, even as he’s solving college-level calculus problems without trying particularly hard.

Freedom-via-upward-mobility, therefore, becomes a heady, irresistible drug for Niyati. She internalises a simple message: the right educational stamp means money and money means the key to power and happiness, things that have been purely notional for her so far. When Ishrat takes her to meet the principal of Winston International (Shilpa Shukla), the first thing Niyati blurts out is, “IIT mein padhnaa hai aur dher saara paisaa kamaana hai” (I want to study at IIT and earn bagfuls of money).

PUBLIC GOODS, PEDDLED PRIVATELY

When I heard Niyati’s line about IIT and “dher saara paisa” for the first time, I was sent back in time to 2005, when I started preparing for the IIT-JEE in Ranchi, enrolled at the local FIITJEE centre. I had heard very similar sentiments from most of my classmates, who seemed to be very clear, even granular in their vision for what they wanted out of college (abstractions like “education” were, for the most part, scoffed at). The culture shock wasn’t nearly as bad for me as it was for Niyati or Vivek, but it was a shock nevertheless.

Schools in my sleepy Ranchi neighbourhood tended to be on the smaller side; grimy matchbox buildings, old-fashioned wooden benches with the paint flaking off and teachers mostly on the older side, with decades of professional cynicism under their belts. The FIITJEE centre, in sharp contrast, was all shiny and chrome, with the brand’s signature orange spilling out of every spotless corner.

'All India Rank'
'All India Rank'

It was located on the seventh floor of Ranchi’s Hari Om Towers, one of the city’s few busy commercial complexes. Air-conditioned classrooms were peopled by young and driven teachers with a point to prove. My hyper-focused classmates appeared to have sketched out the next 10-12 years effortlessly. One memorable afternoon, classes were suspended because cricketer M.S. Dhoni made an appearance in the swanky unisex salon downstairs; immediately, the complex was flooded with fans and it quickly became far too loud for algebra lessons.

What has changed for the Indian student in the nearly two decades since 2005, then? I asked Maheshwar Peri, former president and publisher of the Outlook group, and founder of Careers360 magazine. Few people have followed Indian education for as long as Peri and fewer still understand the potential for private-sector-mischief like he does.

“The biggest change in Indian education since 2004 is that even public institutions have become unaffordable for the majority,” says Peri. “Private colleges, etc., were anyway out of reach from the beginning. An IIM (Indian Institute of Management) degree in 2004 would cost you around 1-1.5 lakh. Today, the price is 30 lakh or more. Basically, we have increased the cost of education by 20x or 30x while the standards of education have barely increased by 2x or 3x.”

Peri’s is a dire prognosis and a largely accurate one. I went to IIT Kharagpur between 2007-12, having enrolled in a five-year “Integrated MSc.” course. My total costs per year were in the 40,000-50,000 region, including hostel and mess charges. The total cost of my education, therefore, was no more than 2-2.5 lakh or so. Not to mention, in order to encourage undergraduates taking up “pure science” courses (like physics and chemistry, or in my case, geology) over engineering ones, the Union government paid us an annual stipend of 60,000, called the “INSPIRE scholarship”—it basically cancelled out the entirety of my costs. Today, a five-year-course at IIT Kharagpur would set you back by 10 lakh in tuition fees alone, plus 2-3 lakh in hostel fees; a total of 12-13 lakh, which is a huge sum for middle-class parents.

“Institutions, whether they are private or public, know how Indian parents will behave,” says Peri. “They know that parents will do whatever it takes: FD todegaa, ghar bechegaa, loan legaa (will break FDs, sell the house, or take a loan). But they will ensure that their kids get into their school or college of choice, it’s hardwired behaviour for Indian parents. Meanwhile, the parents’ generation themselves never knew the concept of an education loan.”

One of the things that came up during my interview with Peri was the timeline for the rise of the private sector in Indian education. Clearly, all of this started when the Indian economy embraced privatisation in the early 1990s—by the end of the decade, amidst the blizzard of colas and cable TV channels, private coaching began its first forays. All India Rank, set in 1997, is ideally placed to depict this process. In a smartly edited montage, we are shown the exponential growth of Mrs Bundela’s (Sheeba Chadha) coaching centre in Kota. Significantly, the first classrooms that she rents in order to service her ever-expanding business come from a now-defunct government college. Her batch sizes keep increasing, her day gets longer and longer. In a parallel to the “student’s average day” montage we come across so often in this genre, we see Mrs Bundela rising at the crack of dawn and putting on her “uniform”, ie the crisply ironed sari she wears for class.

Her entrepreneurial journey, set as it is during a more “innocent” time, is presented as a kind of origin story for the explosive growth of the coaching class industry in India. At a different point in the movie, Vivek and co. have a heartfelt conversation about their lives on a small cliff at Kota’s Jawahar Sagar Dam. As Grover told me, the chosen location was not a coincidence and tied in with the story’s “newly-privatised Indian economy” beats. Kota, a small town near the Chambal river, had not much by way of industry until the dam arrived and provided a ready power source for manufacturing centres. The small town’s economy started revolving around the dam and the industries that it spawned. Employees of the hydro-electric project would live in “Jawahar Nagar”. By the late 1980s, falling water levels in the Chambal and general economic slowdown in Kota meant that the power-generating potential of Kota shrank rapidly. Factories shut down, Jawahar Nagar became a ghost town—and it is in this ghost town that Mrs Bundela has been shown to live in All India Rank.

'Farrey'
'Farrey'

“We wanted to include a bit of history in this segment,” says Grover. “Not just as an origin story for coaching classes but also as an origin story for the liberalised Indian economy, in a way. V.K. Bansal, one of the most famous IIT-JEE teachers, started Bansal Classes in the 1980s after the economic collapse in Kota. He used to work in a company called JK Synthetics which shut down operations in the city. By then he had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and was wheelchair-bound and he started Bansal Classes under these circumstances.”

Today, private players in the Indian education sector are worth a fortune. FIITJEE clocked revenues of 542 crore in FY23, while the Indian coaching industry as a whole is worth 58,000 crore, according to a 2022 study by Pune-based market research firm Infinium Global Research. The same study projected the number to reach 1.34 trillion by 2028. No wonder, then, the Central government recently introduced a number of new regulations intended for this industry. According to the new rules, coaching centres cannot enrol students under the age of 16— FIITJEE, infamously, had IIT-JEE prep courses aimed at students as young as 11-12 (students of classes V and VI). There are also regulations about number of classrooms, teacher/student ratio, prescribed cut-off timings for evening classes and so on.

THE AXES OF INEQUITY

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, once Indian parents realised that education was the key to accessing the spoils of the newly-liberalised economy, the rat race well and truly began. It is at this point that lower-middle-class and working-class parents realised how rigged the game had become, how their children wouldn’t stand a chance unless they found a way to access spaces and resources that richer kids had.

Why did these coaching classes become so powerful so quickly? The short answer is: Because government-funded schools and colleges, already in steep decline by the time the 1990s came around, were abandoned on purpose by state and Central governments. They would be starved of funds and personnel and eventually, shut down quietly without a whimper. According to a report by UDISE (United District Information System for Education), a database about schools in India, over 51,000 government schools were shut down in 2018-19, while the number of private institutions rose by over 11,000 in the same period.

The Canadian-British writer Cory Doctorow has coined a word to describe this process of planned-obsolescence: “enshittification”. The enshittification of Indian education and its eventual handover to private entities, is described really well in an expository passage from the Tamil film Vaathi (2023), which outside of this flashback sequence is a strictly average effort, despite a wholesome lead performance by Dhanush.

Starting with 1993, we are shown the meteoric rise of private institutions and how lecturers leave their jobs at government colleges and schools to teach at these new, better-paying establishments. This sets off a domino effect wherein more and more government colleges are shut down. Vaathi’s main villain, Srinivas Tirupathi (Samuthirakani), devises a quid pro quo scheme with the state government—he sends lecturers in his own employ to teach at state-run colleges. In return, the government refuses to cap fees at Tirupathi’s various institutions.

The enshittification twist is that Tirupathi only sends the youngest, most inexperienced and disinterested assistant lecturers to these dying government colleges, thereby hastening their demise. The government simply points and says, “there are not enough students here” and proceeds to shut down college after college, allowing Tirupathi’s business to expand rapidly. When an idealistic, rogue lecturer named Balu (Dhanush) decides to fight back by holding free classes for poor students, the hero vs villain showdown is triggered.

In the feel-good, National Award-winning Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai (2018) by Rishab Shetty (Kantara), this same sequence of events is used to shut down a Kannada-medium village school in Kasaragod, a border district in Kerala where Kannada speakers are in the majority. The villainous state government official, a Kerala-and-Malayalam chauvinist named Panikker, wants to prove that this school does not have enough students to warrant further funds and investments. He therefore sabotages the school at every turn. In the film’s climax, an eccentric do-gooder named Ananthapadmanabha (Anant Nag) passionately argues against the state’s closure in court: “If a hospital’s ICU doesn’t see a lot of patients, we don’t shut it down. If ministers don’t attend a lot of sessions at Parliament, we don’t shut it down. Which is why as long as there’s even one student in the village who wants to learn, it is the government’s duty to provide that education in Kannada.”

Anurag Pathak, the author of the book 12th Fail, upon which the eponymous film was based, mentions the role he hoped the movie would play in raising awareness about rural education in India. “I think of 12th Fail as a mostly hopeful story,” Pathak says. “But it is also about the importance of the journey, not just the destination. In the climax of the movie, Manoj tells the UPSC interview panel that if he’s not selected, he’d go back to his village and teach kids not to cheat in exams. We need that kind of clarity and belief in the next generation, especially young people living in villages. If you are a youngster studying in a rural school, you should have belief in yourself that even if things don’t go according to plan, you will excel in whatever you decide to do next.” Hopeful, well-meaning words, but do Indian realities match them?

There are other examples in a similar vein to Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, like the Malayalam movie Manikyakkallu (2011), starring Prithviraj Sukumaran, or the Marathi movie Maajhi Shala (2013), both of which feature generous, charismatic, Mr Chips-like rural teachers trying their best to protect their realms from obsolescence and the twin-juggernaut privatisation. When you watch the depiction of rural students in these films, you remember just how wide the gap really is between them and city-dwelling, resource-laden families who can afford to shell out lakhs and lakhs of rupees even before their children even reach anywhere near their competitive-examination years.

Peri brings up an important point about inequity and competitive entrance examinations like the JEE and the UPSC—namely, that the entrance exam model is flawed at inception and tends to favour rich kids, no matter what the discipline being tested. “Entrance examinations bring you transparency but not equity. In pursuit of transparency, we have sacrificed equity and fairness. Any entrance examination will be unfair to a majority of the population simply because of access, because of the unaffordability of coaching classes. If my son gets 95/100 on a test and my driver’s son, who has no access to the kind of resources my son has, scores 65, whose is the greater achievement? I’d say it’s the driver’s son who has proven to be the more impressive individual.”

This is India and there are other axes of inequity, too, apart from income levels. Which isn’t to say that Indian films have always depicted these inequities in a satisfactory manner. In Vaathi, for example, Dhanush’s idealistic teacher Balu also “solves” casteism among his students with a supremely preachy sequence. The Marathi film Vees Mhanje Vees (2016) sees an upper-caste saviour protagonist Shailaja (Mrinmoyee Godbole) setting up a school in her village—she’s trying to hit the target of 20 students, lest the school is shut down via the familiar enshittification route. But the film also has some rather curious and cringeworthy validations of Hindutva and the caste system, like Shailaja approvingly telling a family of hereditary potters that “they are the best potters around” (while exhorting other families to send their children to her school, of course).

'Kota Factory'
'Kota Factory'

12th Fail, meanwhile, rolls out the B.R. Ambedkar line “educate, agitate, organise” in its climax but is silent about its protagonist Manoj Kumar Sharma’s Brahminical privilege. In fact, by playing up Manoj’s poverty again and again, it feeds into the pernicious “poor Brahmin” archetype, a mythology created to fulfil exactly one purpose—to shut down proponents of caste-based reservations (earlier in the film, a lower-caste character helpfully reminds the audience that he has six attempts to clear the UPSC exam, not the four attempts allowed for “general category” students). For all of the film’s considerable strengths (and there are many), this is a blind spot.

Then, of course, there’s gender. In All India Rank, the best teacher on display and the best student among the main cast are both female—Mrs Bundela and Sarika (Samta Sudiksha), respectively. Grover says this was deliberate, to make a point about the exclusion of women from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)—and also from the highly lucrative world of superstar math-and-physics teachers. “If you look at the top, say, 400 or 500 math and physics teachers in India, the ones who are teaching at IIT-JEE coaching classes across India, not just at Kota—not a single one of them is a woman. All of them are men and they are earning crores every year. Somehow, not one woman has been allowed to rise to that level,” says Grover

I’d argue that there’s one final axis of inequity—the exclusion of the genuinely talented student whose reason for studying is simple: A love of studying and of the subject under question. Amidst the cut-throat competition and winner-takes-all nature of competitive examinations, too often these pure-hearted, easy-going nerds fall by the wayside. Sarika is also representative of this last group. Grover says the character was informed by his own younger brother, now a professor of physics.

The ultimate challenge before those in charge of Indian education is simple: to preserve and nourish the Sarikas of the country. To ensure that there’s fair and equitable access to educational resources, resources that are currently hoovered by well-heeled, mostly upper-caste recipients. And to reintroduce the country to the concept of education for its own sake.

However, as Manoj points out in the climactic interview panel scene from 12th Fail, an educated populace spells bad news for politicians. So I wouldn’t hold my breath just yet.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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