In the year 2001, which now feels a lifetime ago, I had appeared for the IIT JEE entrance examination. Thanks to the inherent herd mentality, everyone in the study group jumped on the IIT bandwagon, so I couldn’t stop myself from not doing it. In the examination hall, I could barely solve one question. It was that tough! That I couldn’t crack it, was a foregone conclusion. 14 years later, I cracked another entrance examination and joined IIT KGP as part of the Executive MBA course. First in the family to step into an IIT as a student – Check. Well, technically second because my wife had beaten me to it 5 years ago, but whatever! The point that I am trying to make is, one item on the bucket list was finally checked off. Getting into an IIT is a big deal in India. Every year, approx. 12 lakh students appear for the examination to get into the hallowed gates of India’s biggest technical institutions, out of which around 11 thousand make the cut i.e. a freakin’ 0.92% rate of acceptance! Which means you’ve to be the cream of the cream to get into an IIT. Now if you think that once you’ve cracked the code, life is all set on the other side of the gate, you’re grossly mistaken. What exactly happens inside an IIT? Netflix’s latest show – ‘Alma Matters: Inside The IIT Dream’ tells you exactly what goes in an IIT. It’s a well-researched documentary that talks about the life, the pressure, the struggle and eventual triumph of an IITian, within its peripherals.

IIT Kharagpur aka KGP was India’s first technical institute that came into formation in 1951. Spread across 2100 acres of lush green campus, it’s a different world that exists at a place, which’s roughly 120 km away from the state capital Kolkata. ‘Alma Matters’ talks about life in the country’s first IIT. In about three episodes, each running for 50-55 mins, the viewer gets to see the glimpses of the student life that goes through many ups and downs. For some, it’s the lack of a defined goal and for others, it’s the constant struggle to become something, to get the IIT brand stamped on your back. Each IITian goes through an existential crisis as they constantly juggle between their aspirations and expectations. The show tries to show every aspect of the life that goes in there. The viewer gets to witness the inimitable, undying IIT spirit in the General championship or the annual ILLU competition. The viewer also gets to see the highest point of a student’s life, during the campus placements. Each student toils hard to get into the high paying jobs of the various organisations. At the end of the day, for a chosen few, it pays off handsomely. For some, the race to thrive hard continues. 

But not everything is hunky-dory in IIT KGP. The show tries to balance itself by discussing the elephants in the room – the growing suicide rate among students and the skewed gender ratio leading to biases between a female student and a male student. In the seventy years of IIT KGP’s illustrious history, there has not been a single female Vice President elected, not even a nominee. The students express their anguish about the rampant sexism on campus. The show also talks about the growing rate of suicide and how the institute has not been able to take firm steps to counter it. During the segment on-campus placements, a professor laments about the lack of opportunities in the core industry which propels students towards high paying software jobs. However, the show doesn’t talk anything about the caste-based ostracism or segregation that has been found rampantly in elite institutions of the country. Most recently a professor in the humanities dept at IIT KGP was suspended because of her derogatory comments against certain sections of students belonging to a specific caste or tribe. It’s hard to believe that it’s a recent phenomenon and not have been in practice for long. 

The stars of the show are the students themselves. They make the show look believable. The makers Pratik Patra and Prakash Raj are also the alumni of the institute so the eye for detail is spot on. From Veggies to Tekka, from Chedi’s burgers to Gymkhana, from the never-ending cycling routes across the campus to the lush green canopy of the trees – if you’ve ever been an IIT student or spent some time there, these things will make you nostalgic and will force you to reminisce the good old days back in the campus. I still fondly remember my last day on the campus like yesterday, irrespective of the fact that I was a temporary student and attended classes only on the weekends. Between the good memories and some occasional bad memories, the life of an IITian gets perfectly summarised by the ‘Alma Matters’. 

‘Alma Matters: Inside The IIT Dream’ is now streaming on Netflix. 

The Cinemawala Rating – 3/5

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