Fairly early on in Kota Factory, a teacher sits down with a student to tell him about the city. “Students leave Kota in two years, but the place does not leave them for years,” Jeetu bhaiya (a superb Jeetendra Kumar), the star teacher, tells a wide-eyed Vaibhav Pandey (Mayur More).
The statement might sound like a rehashed generic motivational speech — highlighting the greatness of the city and its enduring ability to stay with students for a long time — but the compelling monologue underlines how infernal the place can be. One leaves everything behind to come to Kota and the place, in turn, secludes and isolates. “The place cuts you from the rest, and everything else ceases to matter,” the teacher adds, harping on how the place contributes in making the students who they are.
Created by Saurabh Khanna, the five-part series opens with a bird’s-eye view of the city. The frame soon dips into a sepia palette, indicating perhaps the soulless existence of the place and its residents. Kota, over the years, has assumed the mythical status of churning out IIT-ians with astonishing speed. With faces of toppers plastered on towering billboards threatening to cover the sky, it engages in an unabashed celebration of the winners. It is designed for rank holders and makes nearly no space for those who could not make it. This inherent discriminatory nature of the city also serves as a fitting premise to articulate the anguish of those who were forced into making it. The losers who are, in fact, misfits.
Art, unlike life, is kind to these losers. Refusing to treat them as incompetent, literature and films routinely romanticise their shortcomings, elevate them as aspirational, and bestow on them the identity of the underdogs or the misfits. Their fall, struggle, and rebellion make for a far more absorbing story than the achievement those who were expected to succeed. What makes Kota Factory an interesting, engaging and important addition to the long line of cinematic representation of such ‘losers’ is its refusal to tell their story. They exist in their absence as the series trains its lens on those who are situated in between the rank holders and the rebels: the subsection of seemingly prosaic people who lead lives so ordinary that they make no story. Their struggle is not to stray or overtake the narrative, but to remain in it.
Vaibhav and his friends, students at the Prodigy Institute, wrestle with the course, not with the system. The factory-like attribute of the city does not disillusion them nor does the prospect of joining the crowd of hundred faceless aspirants seem revolting. With the progression of the series, their disenchantment comes to the fore, but it has less to do with the place and more with themselves. Their struggle to keep up with the strenuous course, eat the bland food at the canteen are identified as their own inability and not an institutional inadequacy. Preoccupied with internal conflicts and not idealistic clashes, they do not expect the system to change for them but hope to change themselves to adapt to the system. And when dissatisfied with the power structure, they navigate their way to modify it without nurturing any ambition to change or disrupt it.
Vaibhav, Meena and Uday, the conformists in the series, standing on varying degrees of compliance with the administration, harbour disparate personal ambitions and yet, are united in their tangible ordinariness. In one of the scenes in the series, Vaibhav comes to Meena’s room, petulant and exhausted with solving papers for long. Hoping to keep him awake, the latter gives him a book of stories to read. Minutes later, Vaibhav is seen snoring while holding the book. The scene, though short, is telling for it discerns Vaibhav’s growing irascibility as weariness and not discontent. He is not a closet romantic dissatisfied with his surrounding, rather is a fatigued IIT aspirant deprived of sleep.
The ingenuity of Kota Factory lies in its ability to deal with different narrative strands and coalesce them effortlessly. By exploring the place through the eyes of students who are precariously positioned between the over and underachievers, the series draws an arresting picture of the dynamics of the place, the city’s propensity to commodify students and discard some as damaged goods. At the same time, the interaction of the students within the capacity of friendship and rivalry subtly sheds light on how the place which thrives on — and has made a business of — pitting one student against another also serves as an unlikely meeting point of students from dissimilar backgrounds, and in some ways a leveller. In a telling scene in the series, Meena, seeing a cake in Vaibhav’s hand, embarks on a rambling birthday wish. When told it is not his birthday, the former remarks helplessly, “Tum ameer log kisi bhi din cake kha lete ho kya?” (Do you rich people have cake any day?).
The extensive five-episode series gains much from the brilliant performances, especially of Ranjan Raj as Meena and Mayur More as Vaibhav. In many ways, it presents an affecting portrayal of a protagonist undergoing his rite of passage. It also provides a glimpse of those whose lives are too ordinary to be written about, informs of the many friendships that are forged in these seemingly hostile organisations and shows how when those friends go their own ways, a promise of meeting in the future is extracted. The place is never mentioned. People in Kota hope to end up at familiar places.