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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The great Indian IIT dream - The Hindu

OCTOBER 28, 2017 16:22 IST

A gritty new web series, Laakhon Mein Ek, gets up close and critical of our endless obsession with producing Asoks

Genius Infinity is a prison. It will consume you; it will chew you up and spit you out with not a sideward glance. Masquerading as a coaching institute for children whose parents want them to get into IIT, this physical space itself is the protagonist of Laakhon Mein Ek, the new web series created by gifted stand-up comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath, of pomegranate-and-banana fame.

Rath has set aside his comic tendencies to create a world of misery and despair, tracking the story of Aakash Gupta, aimless teenaged wastoid, whose caricaturish middle class parents — replete with doting, slightly clueless ‘Indian mother’ and unyielding, emotionally stunted father projecting his own ambitions on to his son — thrust him into a world he’s really not equipped to handle.

He’s sent off, from Raipur to Visakhapatnam, to Genius Infinity, for ‘IIT coaching’. We witness Aakash’s steady descent: carefree and feckless at first, a shell of a human by the end of it. The spectre of suicide looms large, with each passing frame offering a more explicit foretelling.

Much more than cliché
One of India’s worst-kept secrets is that millions of young women and men are forced to study engineering only because of the illusion of financial stability it offers. Aptitude notwithstanding, it’s presented as an idyllic state by overbearing parents, to the point where ‘IIT’ becomes an intimidating monster, a white whale perhaps, that slowly eats away at minds not yet fully developed.

The trope has been mined for material by both comics and writers, mostly for slapstick ridicule. I waded into Laakhon Mein Ek expecting much the same from Rath; a more self-aware Five Point Someone or Three Idiots, if you will, with tales of bonding, ragging, bullying, cramming — a garden variety, male coming-of-age tale.
He inverts the formula quite comprehensively though, crafting a dense, fascinating, heartbreaking portrayal of what life is like for these children, foregoing easy laughs in service of complexity. Just to get the story out of the way, Aakash joins the institute and finds himself slotted in ‘section D’, home to all the losers who have no hope in hell of ever making it. He befriends roommates Chudail, the typical ‘bad influence’ and someone who’s far too young to be this jaded, and Bakri, a stone-faced character played mostly for laughs at first before his character is shaded with greater dimensions as the show goes on.
Aakash is hopelessly out of his depth — almost like that nightmare everyone has of reaching the exam hall having studied for the wrong subject — and struggles to cope.
Ritvik Sahore, the actor who plays Aakash, uses his perpetual rabbit-in-the-headlights expression to betray a sense of vulnerability even when he’s at his worst (bullying his nemesis, Chandrakant). Things get progressively worse for him, and we get to experience his emotional corrosion and mental deterioration in slow motion HD.
However, one major issue with the show that must be pointed out: there are no women. Like zero. Nada. Zilch. Shunya. Sufuri. Nula. Meithen. Ziffer. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, I counted two: one is Aakash’s hapless mum who lives in Raipur and denial; the other is someone else’s mother, whose only purpose is to serve as Bakri’s juvenile infatuation. Beyond that, Genius Infinity is a grand old boys’ club, entirely excluding the woman’s experience in the already male-dominated field of engineering.
The missing women
Criticising a work for what it’s not rather than what it is is tricky. For instance, it’s also not a political satire or a musical. And it’s a question that must be directed at the people commissioning the show as well. That would be Amazon Prime Video, who were recently in the eye of a storm for managing to release a full 14 comedy specials with not a single one by a female comic. (For perspective, there are over 580 million women in India.)
However, I’d argue that we should hold Rath to higher standards as well. For he is one of the smartest, most original comic voices in India, and definitely a personal favourite. He’s part of a young creative movement that champions progressive values, and I think there should have been an inherent responsibility to be more representative.
Nothing nice about them
Watching the show, I realised there wasn’t a single character I ‘liked’, not one whom I could root for unconditionally (which is absolutely not a criticism). Aakash, in mortal fear of his parents, chooses a life of ‘crime’, cheating, bribing, lying his way into the prestigious section A, and being a general pain to everyone in that brief period when his life is good.
Chandrakant is the typical nerd who likes to show the other kids up with his intellect, not to forget his unforgivable sin of being a snitch.
Chudail is a cynic and an ass. The peon smuggles in pills and pot, alcohol and cigarettes, and leaks exam papers to students.
Bala, the ‘muscle’, is a coward, bully, opportunist, all rolled into one. The big boss, Moorthy, is a dour beast who treats students like Chiclets, exploiting their parents’ projected ambitions — he wants to convert the coaching institute into a recognised school.
A cause to support
They each have (some) redeeming traits — the writing is strong enough to prevent broad characterisation — but ultimately, there’s really no redemption, no grand release, no real catharsis (although that may waver depending on how one views the climax).
While there’s much to feel sorry for, there’s no one whose cause you can truly support, which seems a deliberate creative decision. More than anything, it’s an indictment of the system itself, an acerbic attack at the culture of engineering and coaching institutes and an obsession with ‘IIT’.
The individuals, even the borderline-evil Moorthy, are all by-products of a broken system, and that’s what Laakhon Mein Ek takes aim at, hinting at caste prejudices, exploitation, abuse, violence, mental health, and much more besides. (A word for the score as well, the music mimicking the emotions with understated ease.)
To amplify this feeling, the motif of the prison is used. There’s an excruciating attention to detail to create a bitter, claustrophobic atmosphere that increasingly heightens as we get deeper into the narrative. Up first is the visual treatment, as there’s a perpetual feeling of the walls caving in. The dull, gloomy lighting and set design highlights the ennui inside. The walls are dilapidated and urinated on, the staff shuttles between callousness and apathy.
The hope-filled positivity of the kids themselves gives way to world-weariness before they turn into vicious lab rats attacking each other. Even the humour, used sparingly to cut the tension from time to time, is the dry kind that makes you wince rather than laugh out loud. All sense of loyalty, the one bond they seem to value, withers away. Bala, the muscle, plays the role of henchman to Moorthy’s prison warden to perfection, and the growing sense of resentment eventually reaches breaking point — a full-blown prison riot.
Laakhon Mein Ek is not without its flaws — for starters, basing its very premise on an overdone subject — but it succeeds in its raw depiction of a life that leaves lakhs of embittered students in its wake.

Akhil Sood is a freelance culture writer from New Delhi who wishes he’d studied engineering instead.