Creator: Prashant Raj
Directors: Prashant Raj, Pratik Patra
The New Netflix documentary Alma Matters is a look inside IIT Kharagpur, one of the most reputed engineering institutions of India. With three hour-long episodes, the documentary tries to break the stereotypes one often associates with the place.
At first glance Alma Matters looks like a documentary which talks about the pressure of studying in IIT Kharagpur. That’s how it starts, with students talking about the overwhelming rat race and the fact that most student chose the college over their stream. However, what this series tries to do, is celebrate the institution with all its flaws.
The first episode is divided into three parts. The first part is about how IITans are branded as the ‘cream’ of the nation and the repercussions associated with it. A lot of students don’t get the subjects or streams they want and end up losing the motivation to study. This leads to a cycle of disappointment. In the second half, we look at the heirarchies that exist within the campus, how a “chaggi" or a six pointer is different from the eight pointer. We see students take respite in the extra-curricular activities.
The third part of episode one is titled 1:9. It is about how women are overwhelmingly outnumbered by men in the institution. We see this from the point of view of the Vice President elections and how in the 60 years of its existence, there has never been a woman VP candidate. We meet the first ever Sports General Secretary Spandana, who talks about facing sexism and almost losing the will to contest.
While it is noble to call out sexism in IIT Kharagpur by devoting a slot to it, this is the only segment in the entire three-part series that women have a voice in. In fact more men are interviewed to talk about sexism in women. In the second and third episodes where the film talks about important issues, no female student is actually featured. Like they are not scared of placements, or have responsibilities towards their families. When you box women into just one slot and that too give them a quarter of space that you give to your male subjects, it is tokenism at best.
The second episode is all about placements. We see five to six boys prepare for different jobs. They talk about what their families and the society expect out of them. After an intense episode we see our protagonsists landing great placements. Here too, the non-existent role of women is jarring. Cigarette smoking and foul mouthed college boys are beneficial to the narrative, but imagine how interesting some of those stories could have been. IIT Kharagpur is a boys club, we get it.
The third episode is probably the best made. It starts with an IIT KGP tradition that the rest of the world did not even know existed. On every Diwali, the students get together and create a light show with diyas in an extavagant scale. Called ‘Illu’ (from illuminate) by the students, it is actually exhilarating to watch them build something out of scratch and it turning out so beautifully.
However, this feeling quickly dims down since days after this event, we find out that a student has died by suicide. It is also that year’s fifth suicide. This sparks a larger, more important conversation about how the system has failed so many students. When the authorities try to shift the blame, a student passionately says, “Our parents raised us for 20 years and nothing happened to us, you couldn’t keep up alive for five years?"
That moment is definitely goosebump inducing.
Since Alma Matters is a celebration of the institution, we quickly transition into the ‘last days of college’ phase. We see everyone at their most vulnerable, their dorm rooms, their relationship with each other, their relationship with strays who become pets. It is a sweet sentiment, one that makes us yearn for our college days. At the end of the day, the students say, it is an experience of a lifetime.
One thing that Alma Matters makes clear is that a student’s life is not easy. And in hindsight, keeping in mind the Covid-19 pandemic, it makes us realise how horribly we treat our students.
Alma Matters is a good documentary, however, some things feel incomplete. We get to know nothing about the female students. It might have been because the directors, who were men, were not really allowed to shoot in their dormitories. However, we get to know the guys very intimately, from their hopes and dreams , their personal life, down to where they stash their alcohol. Hence, it feels like a cop out, despite these protagonists being very interesting.
On the other hand, we don’t get to know about other important issues. For instance, about two days ago, an IIT KGP teacher was suspeneded for openly abusing ST and SC students. This lead to a movement in which students from the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) community called out other casteist teachers. We do not get to see the rampant casteism, we also don’t get to see students with disabilities and those from underprivileged backgrounds.
Of course, Alma Matters sheds light to important topics. However, it doesn’t talk about every topic. Maybe that was the narrative they wanted to convey, maybe some topics were really uncomfortable to address. However, a lot of effort and passion has been put into Alma Matters and it shows.