Opinion on Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream

Commentary on the inside the IIT Dream

Netflix's Alma Matters: Will It Even Scratch The Surface Of Sexism In  Engineering Colleges?

Today,  I watched an amazing documentary film named Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream on Netflix. It is one of the best documentaries made on IIT and Indian education system so far. I am adding my comments and opinions about this 3 episode series

This documentary is based on the life of students in IIT Kharagpur. This IIT is located in Bengal, and faraway from all the big metro cities in India. The campus is lush green and very remote. The first episode shows how the life of IIT students revolves around departments to residence halls, commuting using bicycles, eating in canteen and living the hostel life. The students who get selected in IIT have worked hard to crack one of India’s toughest exams, JEE and hence, after two years of jail time (Class 11 and 12), as remarked by one of the students, hardly anyone studies seriously after entering the IIT. Because the students get the freedom after their jail time, and hence there is no motivation to study hard again, with few exceptions as always.

Infact, it is shown in the film as conveyed by the students themselves that many of them are confused about their careers. Because first they dont know what they want to do in life, and second they have received admission based on their JEE rank. So, for someone who has a low JEE rank, ends up studying mining or metallurgy, while the JEE top rankers select Computer Science. Hence, many students in spite of their interest in Computer Science cannot study just because they could not perform well on the fateful day of the JEE entrance exam. 

Then, the first episode also shows how gender bias still exists in places like IIT Kharagpur. Many girls studying in IIT experience this bias and sexist behavior of guys in almost everything. That’s why there has never been a single woman president or vice president of the student body in the history of the institution. The primary reason is the huge gender gap ratio, which is almost 1:9 for girls:guys. Hence, the institution is male dominated, in every sphere of life.

Then the second episode ( which is the best out of the three as per my opinion) is based on the job placements in IIT Kharagpur. All the IITs are not only famous in India for selecting the brightest minds, but also for their job placements packages. We often hear engineers from IIT getting Rs.1 Cr package. It is true that some do receive such luxurious packages, but it is not that all studying in IIT get such hefty paying jobs before graduation. Infact, this episode debunks the myth that all IIT engineers end up getting hefty salaries or jobs in Google or Microsoft. Infact as told by many IIT students studying there, very few, maybe 1 or 2 in a placement calendar year, only receive such life changing offers. While others either get good or industry standard packages only.

The episode also nicely shows how tense the students are to get the jobs. Because it is a matter of prestige and status. If IIT engineers, who are known as the best minds in the country, fail to land up a job, then how else can other engineers get the jobs? Hence, the pressure to perform and get placed is very very high. Many students don’t sleep or eat before interviews. They work hard with night outs, taking mock tests and group discussions to clear the interview round. Often the pressure is so high, that many get addicted to constant smoking or even drinking to release the stress. After seeing this episode, I remembered the movie ‘3 Idiots’, where Amir Khan aka ‘Rancho’ tells how the engineering colleges have ceased to be a place of learning, and rather have become a kind of ‘Pressure Cooker’. Indeed, after watching this second episode of this documentary, Rancho was right!

Finally, the third or final episode shows some hidden side of IIT Kharagpur(KGP). The so-called studious 9 pointers, or lazy 6 pointer engineers, participate in art, drama, painting and many other hobbies apart from their studies, video games, movies and smoking. The unique tradition of Illu in KGP to light diyas on a beautiful theme and convey the message shows how the left and right brain, when worked together, can create a beautiful world. The paintings created by the nerdy engineers reflect the hidden artistic talent inside their logical minds.

Then, this episode also shows a dark side of IIT KGP, which is suicide. Each year, 4- 5 students end up committing suicides and this is deeply troubling. The interviews with students throws light on the possible reasons behind the high suicide rate, such as excessive pressure to perform and excel, isolated campus, being away from parents and unable to cope up with the pressure and stress. I remember, one of my good IIT friend, committed suicide and it was deeply depressing. I don’t know why someone who has made it into IIT, unlike millions like me who couldn’t get into IIT in spite of trying hard, and still give up on life like that. I mean even if the academic stress or peer pressure is extremely unbearable in places like IIT, but there is always a way out. Because those 4 or 5 years are just a phase of life, and that phase surely ends someday. If someone fails in that phase of life, it does not mean that he or she will fail in other phases of life as well! I wish my friend would have thought about this, and he would have been alive today!

Finally, the episode ends with the camaraderie among students and friends who have bonded with each other for the past 4 or 5 years. At the end, almost everyone gets a job before graduating from IIT, and many of them end up going to IIM, crack UPSC or fly to USA for their M.S or Ph.D. Later in life they become like the Sundar Pichai’s or even Chetan bhagat in life. The episode ends with a very simple yet profound message from one of the students, who is not so good at academics in IIT, being a 6 pointer, and yet successfully landing a job, shares the secret to the viewers that “The most important thing in life is to never give up!”

I have had many IIT friends during my M.S in the USA, and one of them is a very good friend, almost like a brother. He comes from a small non-english speaking background, got into IIT KGP with his sheer determination, then completed his masters in IISc, and now is doing his Phd in the USA successfully. He is one of the best examples of perseverance, hard work and never give up attitude in life.

I used to believe that maybe these bunch of IITians are really smart and intelligent, and hence they become so rich and famous in their life. Yes, they are smart, but it is not their smartness, or how fast they can solve problems, rather it is their attitude which is the secret of their success. Those four years together mould them to become tough, and develop the attitude to never give up in front of any problems. They learn to handle pressure, and they burn the midnight oil to get the work done, or meet deadlines often. This ability to perform under pressure, take quick decisions, survive in tough environments ( with the ragging included) and to face the problems with confidence is what makes them so valuable to the corporate and tech companies. Because today’s corporate culture is very competitive, and only those who are able to work and handle enormous pressure can excel. So, it’s not really what the IIT graduates study, but their attitude, their 4 year exposure to the competition and academic pressure is what matters to these companies!

Ofcourse, many other engineers in India who are not from IIT are also equally intelligent and have similar attitude, but somehow the IIT tag, their bonding for life, which often means helping each other out in times of need, networking as IIT alumni, helps them to make the IIT brand one of the best in the world. I find this similar to Army life or NDA where similar kind of camaraderie or brotherhood exists. This team work and the belief that they can achieve anything in life is what makes them successful. Infosys is a wonderful example of how a bunch of IITians started the IT revolution in India. Even many of the Silicon valley CEOs are IITians( Sundar Pichai, Vinod Khosla, Arvind Krishna etc) and it’s no surprise why so many of them have achieved it!

Finally, I would like to end this blog post with some food for the mind after seeing this documentary. On one side we see that IITians continue to rise up the ladder of success in whatever field they work, be it in India or USA. They have become the CEO’s in Silicon Valley or investment bankers on Wall Street. But the primary purpose of establishing the IIT by Pandit Nehru was to create engineers and technocrats who would build the nation. Even the IIT Kharagpur building reminds us of being ‘dedicated to the service of the nation’. 

Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur Fellowships in India 2020-2021

But we see the highly subsidized IIT education has been benefiting the Silicon valley and Wall street with the ‘Brain-Drain’ which has been going on for the past several decades. Though not all emigrate to the USA, but at the end, India has been losing some of its finest minds who could have built several Infosys in India until now.

Then, the education system in IIT as shown in the documentary reflects there is some systemic problem. Because students either cannot study what they like just because of their low JEE rank, or they do not get the opportunity to work for core companies, as very few core companies visit the IIT campus. Hence, the students from any engineering background, have to learn coding to get into software companies, or they end up doing consulting on Wall Street. This is a failure of the system which cannot provide the best minds to study what they want and neither any good opportunities to work in India in the core sector. Then it is not surprising why they shouldn’t apply the ‘escape velocity’ to settle abroad?

And the fact that if the brightest minds in IIT’s themselves are confused about which field to work on or do not have the motivation to do research ( due to other more lucrative coding/consulting opportunities abroad), then no wonder India does not have much both, innovation and entrepreneurship until now. Because we see the guys who could innovate for India end up doing coding in Silicon Valley, while the folks who could build startups end up in consulting jobs on Wall Street! Maybe this answers why India hasn’t produced any Nobel Prize winners in core Sciences after independence, when ironically, we produced more Science Nobel laureates before 1947 when we neither had the freedom nor the institutions.

Hence, this documentary #AlmaMatters is an eye opener for India. It is especially important for the younger generation, who are still in high school and their parents, to watch, because I have personally experienced how madly obsessed my generation was to get into IIT. Now, after 11 years, I find that obsession to be overrated, driven by peer pressure and motivated by the myth that ‘Once we get into IIT, Life toh set hain boss..! . I wish today’s younger generation and upcoming ones do not get obsessed with the IIT tag. I mean it is okay to get into IIT, but that is not the only way for a successful life. Infact, as the documentary shows, the life of IITians is not very different from the other non-IITians. This myth that all IITians excel in life needs to be debunked, because we see many IITians committing suicides as well. How can that be explained?

And even more important is that just like this documentary reveals the other side of IIT, so is the need to debunk the hyper inflated life of IIM graduates, those pursuing M.S in USA or even UPSC aspirants. Because millions of youngsters in India waste their precious youth years desperately trying to crack the JEE, CAT, UPSC and even with the dream to settle in the USA. Just because few people could crack these exams or win the USA lottery, doesn’t mean everyone should do it.

India needs real factories, startups and innovation labs, and not the ‘Kota factory’ or ‘Rajendra Nagar, Delhi’ factory!

It’s high time to channel the world’s largest youth population( which India has currently) in the right direction, not only for India but also for making a better world!

© Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Abhishek Karadkar and abhiknotes.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Abhi

Hello, this is Abhishek. I am an Electrical Engineer by education, and worked for an Energy Management company in Atlanta, USA. After staying for 5 years in United States, I have moved back to my country, India. Besides work, I am a bibliophile and enjoys reading about history, current affairs, and biographies. I practice ‘Sudarshan Kriya Yoga‘ meditation and volunteer for a NGO, Art of Living. I am a vegetarian, and also a fitness enthusiast. I intend to work for spreading awareness about Cancer. Finally, I enjoy writing and I hope to integrate this interest into my career with more experience. Please like, share and subscribe to my blog. Thank you for visiting!

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