‘An Engineered Dream’ explores the claustrophobic world of Kota’s IIT coaching centres

An Engineered Dream, that won Best Documentary at Indie Film Festival Chennai, lays bare the unhealthy stress on students in the coaching centres of Kota

Published - February 11, 2020 05:48 pm IST

“This period of nine months is similar to the nine months you were in your mother’s womb… Forget everything else, just remember your parents’ faces the day you left them to come here. You are doing this for them.”

An IIT-coaching academy teacher based in Kota utters these words to a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds huddled together, in one of the opening scenes of An Engineered Dream . And it hits us then — the devastating similarities between preparing for IIT in Kota and indoctrination.

The movie won Best Documentary at Indie Film Festival Chennai, held over the past weekend. An Engineered Dream follows the lives of four teenagers travelling from different corners of India to Kota, the city famous for its coaching centres, in Rajasthan.

Here, for almost a year, they cage themselves in cubicle-sized rooms in order to prepare for entrance to the Indian Institutes of Technology — “One of the toughest undergraduate engineering exams in the world with an acceptance rate of less than 1%,” says director Hemant Gaba, who was in the city for the festival.

His vision was not to question the hard work that goes into preparing for an exam, but “whether you made that choice after being exposed to all possibilities available to you,” he says. “Is this your dream, or was this given to you? Hence, the title of the fim: An Engineered Dream .”

Building claustrophobia

Inside the four walls of the coaching centres of Kota, the pressure is immense. Former rank holders are brought in to meet the current batches, and are celebrated for not having any other hobbies. Despite being in the company of 1,50,000 other students who come to Kota every year, according to the documentary, loneliness is a recurring issue.

Sincere questions of lust and love among hormonal teenagers are brushed off with an offhand “Concentrate on your career now, love can come later” — a philosophy that the students have taken to heart, and repeat in front of the cameras. But in private phone calls with their parents and friends, the cracks in the armour begin to appear.

As the exam date comes closer, the sense of claustrophobia rises. In a harrowing montage, Hemant shows us multiple doors locked from the inside, with sticky notes of ‘Do not call, do not knock, I am dead’ put up.

To shoot this movie, Hemant spoke to many students across Kota for a year, staying in a hostel with one of his subjects in the movie. “We would wait two days to get access for one hour. But once we had that, we would try and create a good relationship between the students, so that they don’t think of us as outsiders,” says Hemant, adding that his editor even stayed with one of the girl students’ family in Surat for a few days.

However, not all hostels were compliant, so Hemant had to have one of the students, S, film himself with a camcorder, vlog style. This initial disadvantage gave rise to what has become the soul of the movie: his boyish ramblings either alone in his room, trying to study, or with his friends, goofing off, are some of the purest scenes in the movie.

The sarcastic teenager gives us the biggest laughs by praying to Donald Trump for starting the Third World War before the IIT exam, and in the very next moment silences that laughter by wondering out loud, the possibility of killing himself. A reminder that, between 2013 and 2018, 77 students had taken their lives in the city, as per government data.

On the other hand is the second protagonist — portrayed as a textbook good boy, who parrots his parents’ opinions. Asked why he wants to ‘crack IIT’ or ‘do MBA after’, he looks at his father with a blank smile, who quickly prompts an answer.

Sometimes, admits Hemant, “I felt guilty about using the students to drive home a point.” But then, he adds, “It was a point that I had to make.”

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