Alma Matters Review: An Honest Look at Life Inside IIT

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Alma Matters Review: An Honest Look at Life Inside IIT

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Media portrayals of the Indian Institutes of Technology tend to fall into one of two camps – utter reverence, or the-dark-underbelly-of. Where Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream succeeds is in its balance between these two extremes. The new Netflix documentary captures both the good and bad parts of life inside one of India’s best and most hallowed colleges, through the eyes of its most important stakeholders, those who’re studying there.

The three-episode series focuses on the students of IIT Kharagpur – their aspirations, fears, insecurities, and pressures. As the show progresses, you feel like they’re any one of us – except with a better JEE rank (apologies to readers who might actually be from an IIT). It also features a cameo by Biswa Kalyan Rath, the celebrated comedian who happens to be an alumnus of the institute.

The new Netflix documentary captures both the good and bad parts of life inside one of India’s best and most hallowed colleges, through the eyes of its most important stakeholders, those who’re studying there.

I’ll be honest. When I sat down to watch the documentary, I expected a bleak watch. Maybe how the struggle to get through to an IIT wrecked years of so many youngsters, a theme that has personal appeal (I made the mistake of scoring decently enough in my Class 10 exams, giving my parents false hope that they had a potential IITian on their hands – a dream that was easily shattered once said potential IITian refused to go to coaching classes any longer.). Biswa’s appearance in the trailer for the show only added to my impression that this series would not be one large puff piece; after all, his own show Laakhon Mein Ek dealt with the dark side of the IIT coaching industry.

Around two and a half hours into Alma Matters, though, I was pleasantly surprised that not only was it balanced but it was also mature. It was a real, honest look at what it’s like to be an IITian. It felt like an AV version of some Quora threads. There were some happy themes, and some dark ones. These often follow each other and the effect can be jarring, particularly in the third episode where (minor spoiler alert) a delightful bit on a much-loved college Diwali tradition abruptly segued into, without warning, a gripping segment on suicides on campus. Diyas to ropes in two minutes.

It was a real, honest look at what it’s like to be an IITian. It felt like an AV version of some Quora threads.

Part of the reason the documentary feels real is that a majority of it is shot in hostels and whereabouts. Indeed, it’s surprising that a crew was allowed to shoot sensitive bits like placement processes, hostel drinking, a student uprising, and even lectures. Students portrayed raw emotion not out of thespian training but because that’s what they were feeling at the time, often quoting from that unique brand of philosophy that comes from copious amounts of frustration and nicotine.

At times, I was reminded of many moments from my own college life (even though my place of study was a fair few rungs below the one in question) – the joy and trauma of placement season, the bland yet nourishing mess food, the hapless attempts at making music, the inexplicable thrill of winning an inter-department dumb charades competition. In many ways, the documentary feels like any other college experience, and there will be a fair bit of nostalgia invoked even if you’ve never gone to an engineering college, let alone a premier IIT. That being said, it’s evident their problems are of a different level (oh, the pressure to live up to the IIT tag!), but otherwise, they’re just like you and me.

Alma Matters chooses to focus on just one institute – IIT Kharagpur – and this in my mind was a brilliant decision. The points become stronger, told through characters who we become invested in as the series moves on; the message comes through far stronger than any “5 things that are wrong with the IITs” article ever could. Of course, Biswa’s appearance as an alumnus of this particular college also adds legitimacy. He is commenting on IIT-KGP, not on the IIT system as a whole; yet the latter point gets made.

The message comes through far stronger than any “5 things that are wrong with the IITs” article ever could.

Another win: The documentary gives each theme (such as placements, and the aforementioned Diwali celebration) enough time to marinate and let the viewer soak it in. Lines by students would often be followed by long seconds of silence and awkwardness, the import of the words uncomfortably lingering. It was almost as if the directors were inspired by the words of bluesman Miles Davis, “Silence is more important than sound.” Some seemingly unimportant scenes are stretched out, but far from acting as an annoyance, it made the whole thing seem more real. One such moment involves a harried lad running around his hostel block asking if anyone had shoe polish for he had an interview in 15 minutes. (We’ve all been there). Again, mad props to whoever managed to get all that access and capture all the sensitive moments on camera.

Alma Matters is not all just a random montage of student life. There are some important messages in here. Probably the most important of these would be how India’s best and brightest study at colleges dedicated to pushing quality engineering education, only to end up working in a few in-demand sectors – mostly IT and data science. “It’s what the market wants,” laments a professor on the show knowing that nobody really wants to attend his mining engineering courses for the potential career opportunities it provides. Clearly, the “core” fields have suffered thanks to the astronomical salaries technology firms offer and society as a whole is poorer for it.

If there’s one criticism of the show, it would be that it tends to be largely male-centric. A lot of this has to do with the institute’s skewed gender balance (9:1) and possible lack of access to female hostels. However, the first episode itself addresses the gender inequality issue at length.

If there’s one criticism of the show, it would be that it tends to be largely male-centric.

Ultimately, the show’s biggest positive is that it’s non-judgemental. Alma Matters presents life as it is for a variety of students (and even faculty), leaving the viewer to make up his own mind. It’s neither an endorsement of the IITs, nor an outright censure. This is aided by the lack of a deliberate narrative or singular protagonist. While there are episode names and chapters within (given clever names like Escape Velocity and Young’s Modulus), there is no apparent storyline or chronology, except for the fairly moving ending which shows college life drawing to a close.

Alma Matters is a good watch, worthy of your time and attention. To paraphrase one of the students: We always talk about what you do to get into the institute (JEE coaching) and what you do to get out of it (placements). But real life happens between those two. A person can change a lot in five years. This show is about those five years.

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