‘Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream’ review: Netflix documentary engages, but lacks an outsider’s perspective

The three-part series on life inside the hallowed halls of India’s premier educational institution fails to probe into the true nature of the students’ experience

“Anything can be done provided enough work has been put into it. That is how a majority of people crack JEE,” pontificates Gokul Krishnan, a student from IIT Kharagpur’s mechanical engineering department. As he tries to hide his wry smile, he continues, “Then after they come here, they find freedom at last after years of leading a prisoner-like existence. How will they study? Why will they study?”

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Netflix’s three-part documentary Alma Matters doesn’t try to answer Gokul’s enquiries. Instead, it uses his comments as a road map to navigate its way around the highly competitive academic landscape that engulfs IIT Kharagpur’s sprawling campus; a world within a world.

While capturing its prime subjects mounting one obstacle after another, the series lays bare their broken dreams and burning anxieties with much aplomb. From getting into the most prestigious departments within the institution to securing the most coveted jobs, a lot is expected from students gracing the hallowed halls of IIT.

However, the myth surrounding their alma matter comes crumbling down when we see them faltering, gasping for help as they try to compete with each other for the brightest opportunities, over-burdened by their need to fare better than the next person.

It does not help that the documentary’s effectiveness is cut short by the lack of an outsider’s perspective. Take for instance, the tribalism among students hailing from a particular hostel or a department. The creators, instead of undertaking a thorough examination of what lead to them behaving the way they do, resort to normalising their actions and even glorifying the same.

Robbing the production of its credibility further is its portrayal of issues like gender bias in a male-dominated setting, and student suicides. Both are explored rather half-heartedly, managing to only scratch the surface with its politically-correct tone.

Further, it remains mum on caste dynamics and discrimination along similar lines within the institution — an issue that has made headlines for years now.

Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream

  • No. of episodes: 3
  • Duration: 45 to 60 minutes
  • Plot: In a “nation of middle-class,” the IIT dream involves clearing the world’s toughest public exam for guaranteed life-long success. Life is not an exam though. It’s a hustle, one that nobody trains them for. The result? Eternal tumult

Stitching together testimonials from students and teachers with picturesque drone shots of the Kharagpur campus and visuals of students undertaking extra-curricular activities, the series seems to be disseminating information that is already well-known.

Even though it does follow the lives of students outside the classroom as they share a smoke and indulge in heavy drinking sessions, the documentary fails to probe into the true nature of their experience at the institution.

Unlike Abhay Kumar’s Placebo (2014) which deals with the mental health issues of students at AIIMS Delhi, this Netflix production lacks both an objective approach and an original voice.

It woefully wastes its runtime on students preparing for a grand Diwali celebration. As they light diyas and undergo difficult tasks meticulously, seniors complain that with each passing year, freshers are becoming more engrossed with their laptops rather than show up for one-on-one interactions with their batch mates. The pedantic lectures that follow are as cringey as the responses they garner.

Case in point, comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath’s take on the CGPA-based hierarchical system that labels students as merely chaggis (six-pointers) and sattis (seven pointers), languishing behind the atthis (eight pointers) and the nehlis (nine pointers). His rant on the same seems to be woefully insensitive to the plight of the regular student, making it hard to relate to his statements and the larger production that it is a part of.

The narrative itself is quite jarring, as the attention is firmly on the placement process from the get-go, jumping back to other facets of the IITian life only much later. This stops the series from showcasing a holistic image of what goes on inside the insular campus.

The final product ends up being a collocation of random events, juxtaposed one after the other with students quibbling over their CGPAs and flaunting their CTCs with an air of superficiality that is unpalatable.

All in all, Alma Matters is an interesting watch in itself, but one can’t ignore that it exhibits the same traits as a newly-arrived fresher at the gates of the country’s premier institution: brimming with promise, but lost in its bloated expectations of what life will be inside.

Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream is currently streaming on Netflix


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