Engineering Dreams

A web series gets at the heart of Kota’s coaching industry

Students come to Kota by the tens of thousands—usually after finishing their tenth standard, but some of them even before. raj k raj / hindustan times / getty images
01 June, 2019

Some years ago, I spent several days in Kota, Rajasthan, gathering material for an article about the coaching industry there for The Caravan. It was hardly a difficult assignment. Signs of the industry were everywhere I looked—up on hoardings, down on the street in discarded leaflets, in offices, the Mall, a temple. All I had to do was observe, then write about it.

It may not always have been that easy, though. Until the 1980s, the town’s economy was largely centred around chemical factories and textiles. But then the coaching business took flight here. Students now come to Kota by the tens of thousands—usually after finishing their tenth standard, but some of them even before. They come to prepare for competitive exams for the country’s top engineering and medical colleges, particularly the Indian Institutes of Technology. There are five big coaching institutes—Bansal, Vibrant Academy, Allen Career Institute, Career Point and Resonance—and dozens of smaller establishments. Coaching has also spawned a parallel economy in the city: hostels, restaurants (“messes”), bike rentals, tiny roadside stalls selling everything from Maggi noodles to stationery.

Because of its apparently single-minded focus on coaching and because it caters to the needs of more than a hundred thousand students from all over the country with elite-college dreams, Kota has evolved into a city like no other I know. Bizarre in many ways, but one gigantic gold mine for stories.

For example: there are “To-Let” signs everywhere, including inside the Mall. There is heartfelt, moving and sometimes pathetic graffiti on a wall at the Radha Krishna Mandir in Talwandi. Coaching classes “poach” teachers from other coaching classes, and flaunt their victories on their billboards. Students who get a high rank in an exam are often claimed by more than one coaching establishment, their larger-than-life images gracing the lobbies of their respective buildings. The city boasts several “fake schools,” where kids register so they can appear for their board exams without having to attend regular classes—something everyone speaks of openly.

I was even delighted to find a “novel” for sale there—“To-Let” sign on the cover—that purported to tell the story of Kota student life. It was so horribly written that it was actually terrific. (“He asked out-of-odds pointing night out as an unwanted luxury”: just one of innumerable sentences to make your brow furrow.) Yet it always seemed to me that the place was fertile ground for more narrative. I thought a film might do it justice. And now we have something close, a web series: The Viral Fever’s Kota Factory. Much of what I saw in it mirrored my own memories of Kota.

Vaibhav Pandey, the protagonist in Kota Factory, played by Mayur More, is a teenager from small-town India—Itarsi in Madhya Pradesh—with big dreams. Or at any rate, his parents have big dreams, and at least to start with, we are not sure he shares them.

In the first episode, his father tries to get him into the cream of the Kota institutes, Maheshwari Classes. To anyone who knows anything about Kota, the name will ring bells. It alludes to Allen Career Institute, one of the Kota big five, which Rajesh Maheshwari founded, and with his three brothers, now runs. The institute’s website and other publicity material feature a well-known photograph of the brothers: two sitting, two standing behind; all four in white long-sleeved shirts and light-brown sleeveless jackets; two framed images on the wall behind them. An almost identical photograph shows up at the beginning of the series. Part of a promo clip for the fictional Maheshwari Classes, it is captioned “The Maheshwari Brothers.”

The interview does not go well. Based on the class Vaibhav attended in Itarsi, the fictional Maheshwari brother thinks he will be weak in chemistry and rejects him. He dismisses the father’s protest that Vaibhav scored 90 percent in his tenth-standard exam. “Over seven lakh students score 90 percent or more,” Maheshwari intones. “And how many seats for IIT? Only 5,273. So even if only the ninety-plus-percent kids take the IIT exam, 99 percent of them won’t make it.”

He is right, of course. Those are the numbers that Kota dreams must stack up against every day. Of all the students and their parents I have met who are going through coaching, in Kota and elsewhere, I am not sure how many fully grasp the odds. The dreams are that powerful and the consequent pressures that intense. One Kota psychiatrist told the Indian Express in 2015: “Students, who have been top scorers … are exposed to a higher competitive level here and when they [slip] in terms of ranking in their class, it hits them hard. The regular evaluation process that should ideally help them improve, most often depresses them.” No wonder Kota has made the news of late for the worst reasons—in 2018 alone, there were nearly twenty student suicides.

From Maheshwari, Vaibhav and his father take a rickshaw to the rival Prodigy Classes. On the way, they take in a curious coaching-class phenomenon: pictures of the high-ranker who is claimed by more than one institute. When I was in Kota, I found an enormous photograph of Shubham Mehta, the then IIT-second-ranker—“AIR 2”—in the Allen building, and then again in the Resonance building. Similarly, Kota Factory shows us three adjacent billboards, for Spectrum Classes, Vidyashram Tutorials and Molecool Classes, all fictional and all featuring the same young man—“AIR 20”. His name? Shubham Bansal.

Remember that name.

Three more adjacent billboards in the show tell the story of coaching faculty, complete with photographs. Meet Rohit Tyagi on the left, “now teaching in Proton Classes.” There is no mention, since he is “now” at Proton, of where he has taught before. The other billboards are not as coy. The one in the middle reads “IIT Chemistry with ex-Proton Classes Faculty Manish Sir now teaching in Absolute Classes.” And, on the right, we have “Ex-Prodigy and Ex-Proton Faculty Aakash Khare, now in Infinity Academy.”

Vaibhav is admitted into Prodigy—fictional again, though housed in the familiar real-life edifice that belongs to the oldest of the Kota establishments, Bansal Classes. At the end of the episodes, “special thanks” is given to the head of Resonance, and VK Bansal, the person who spurred the coaching industry in Kota. It makes you wonder whether the hardly subtle reference to the Maheshwari brothers in the series is a dig or a tribute. After all, there is also a passing glimpse of an IIT exam topper—“AIR 1”—gushing about Maheshwari Classes. His name is Gyan Bansal, though there is a later reference to him as Gyan Mittal. Bansal after Bansal, and one who sings the praises of Maheshwari? Kota must appreciate the irony.

With his admission, Prodigy gives Vaibhav the names of three schools—and if you know about Kota’s fake schools, you know what is coming. Vaibhav’s father asks, naïvely, “Which of these is the best?” The man chuckles: “What difference does it make? You won’t be going there anyway!” Fair point. After all, the real fake school I visited in Kota seemed not to extend much beyond its chatty principal’s poky office.

Vaibhav is slotted into Prodigy’s batch A10. The idea of a “batch” is still another coaching peculiarity. Given large student numbers, coaching institutes must necessarily divide them into manageable classroom sizes. Every single institute I have come across does this according to performance. Students get assigned to a batch at the beginning, likely according to their school marks. They are told, as Vaibhav is, that the regular tests will allow you to slide up or down in the hierarchy—until, presumably, you arrive at your particular level of competence.

Every coaching institute will dismiss even the suggestion that lower batches get worse teachers and less attention, and thus, lower chances of making it through the exams. But the students know and believe otherwise, and in Kota Factory, Vaibhav is no exception. He is outraged that he has been assigned to Prodigy’s lowest batch. How he rises to A5, and the dynamics of being there, are fascinating Kota stories in themselves that the series explores.