Published: 14th April 2021
Here's why everyone should watch Hemant Gaba's National Award-winning docu An Engineered Dream
We spoke to National Award winner Hemant Gaba, who tells us more about his documentary on the Kota coaching classes that won him the honour
Student: We do have friends but still something is missing, what shall we do about it?
Another student: I feel a heavy responsibility inside me to fulfil my parents' dreams. It is eating me from inside. What to do? How to be emotionally stable when things are not in my favour here? How to overcome lustful thoughts?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Ah! You have asked the right question. Are you guys feeling lonely?
Do understand, you shall not have relationships till you make your career. If you will fall in love with someone, then studies will be left behind.
The documentary An Engineered Dream by independent filmmaker Hemant Gaba starts with this shot of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar addressing tens of thousands of students who study at coaching centres in Kota, Rajasthan. The story follows the lives of four teenagers who travel from different corners of India to Kota, the coaching city we all know about. Here, students coop themselves up in cubicle-sized rooms in order to prepare for one of the toughest undergraduate engineering exams in the world that has an acceptance rate of less than one per cent. Every year, 1,50,000 students come to Kota to attend the coaching institutes to prepare for the entrance exams at the IITs. The documentary won the National Award for Best Film in the Non-Feature category for the year 2019. The awards were announced a year later than usual due to the pandemic.
Hemant shares how the story progresses. "There are four major characters in the documentary, out of which one guy's entire family has moved to Kota so that he can study. One student has come in all the way from Sharjah, UAE to study at Kota, while the third guy is from Madhya Pradesh and there's a female character too. As the film progresses, we see these characters arriving at Kota from their respective hometowns, what happens with them throughout the year, towards the end we also talk about the results — whether they make it or not," he says. In the course of almost 8-9 months of shooting, Hemant and his team spoke to almost a hundred students and then, decided on the four characters. They travelled with them to their cities, stayed with them at Kota and found that every character is going through different things but there's definitely a few things that are common — anxiety, peer pressure, the reason they all came to Kota in the first place. These aspects go back and forth as the story progresses. "There are sequences about the pressure that Kota places on its students, however, it cannot be called a verbose documentary, it's not a film where people are constantly speaking, there are other elements such as shots of the place, text, a few silent sequences, etc," the filmmaker shares.
What would surprise you is that Hemant wasn't actually working for this documentary at first. "I was in Kota working on a different project and then, I saw an ad from the Asian Pitch seeking documentary pitches in 2016. I created a three-minute trailer in Kota using my mobile phone and pitched the project with that. Within three months, my first pitch came through and I received an invitation to deliver an in-person pitch in Taiwan. That's how the process started and the documentary was chosen among nearly 140 other proposals. Sometime around May-June 2018, the film was completed. Initially, we wanted to make a film about the loneliness and claustrophobia students go through while studying at Kota for the entrances. But the final film turned out to be about several other things — how parents, society at large, or peer pressure moves the children in this direction and makes them follow the herd to secure a seat in the IITs. We discovered more of that through the documentary," adds Hemant.
Speaking on how he chose the characters for the documentary, Hemant says that it was based on a few factors. "How confident they are in front of the camera, whether their story was different from regular students - we needed them to stand out and not be similar to each other," he adds. With respect to permissions, what happened was that Hemant had to stay in a hostel for almost two weeks to understand where the students live while they prepare for the most important exam of their life. "Small, dingy rooms with no windows, no light coming in, some have windows but they open to shafts. The children won't open it as an unbearable smell would come from there," he says, sharing their plight. He also adds that the team didn't have great access in terms of coaching centres, it was very regulated.
In one of the scenes where students are welcomed to Kota, one of the teachers at a coaching centre is heard saying, "Always remember the day you left your homes to come to Kota. Always keep your parents' photograph with you and look at it every day. Remind yourselves that you have to clear IIT to take care of your families." Commenting on this, Hemant shares that coaching institutes were hesitant as Kota has received negative coverage in the media. "When we spoke to them, we told them that we didn't have any hidden agenda to portray coaching centres in a bad light, we wanted to showcase it as it actually is. Media often end up blaming the coaching institutes but after filming there, I realised they are not the ones to blame. They are just opportunistic individuals trying to make money like any other business. The reason they manage to do it is due to parents' and society's insecurity feeding it, which they capitalise on. When someone ranks in the top 10, they will promote it so much that every parent will want their children to have that rank in an IIT JEE exam," he adds.
At the end of shooting the entire documentary what Hemant realised was that as much as five to ten per cent are doing it because they want to and the others are doing it due to peer pressure. "It is mind-boggling that some believe that if you are from the IITs, you are bound to get a good matrimonial match. The students' parents, teachers, peers never actually check if they are interested in Science. The other thing that I personally realised was how big the Kota coaching industry is. I have grown up in Delhi and have heard about them but never knew the magnanimity of this coaching industry. There are star teachers who even get `1 crore as an annual package, there is one coaching institute that started a private university with the amount of money they earned," he concludes.