To an American viewer, the premise of the Indian television show Kota Factory (available on Netflix) might seem absurd. The show is set in a city of over a million inhabitants that is economically based on a single “industry,” that of tutoring teenagers preparing for college entrance exams. Yet the city of Kota, located in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, is real, as is its focus on exam preparation. More than 150,000 students are reported to come annually to this city, most of them staying for two or three years. Dozens of exam-coaching companies – private schools, essentially – compete for students, most of whom live in cramped hostels. The aim of most students is admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a highly prestigious 23-campus institution with branches scattered across the country.
Kota Factory is shot in black-and-white, with camera angles and other techniques reminiscent of those of an art film. It is best described as a serious sitcom. According to the Wikipedia article on the show, its creator “aims to change the popular narrative surrounding Kota and preparation for [entrance exams] in Indian pop culture to a more positive one via the show.” Despite the popularity of studying in Kota, the city’s educational industry has acquired a somewhat negative perception due partly to a string of well-publicized suicides linked to its extraordinarily competitive atmposphere.
I find this show particularly interesting for the light that it sheds on the differences between the Indian and American educational systems. In Kota, a successful teacher – meaning one whose students have a relatively high acceptance rate at IIT – can have something of a celebrity status. The show’s most interesting character is a charismatic physics lecturer who is harsh but caring, deeply involved in his students lives. He is precisely the kind of mentor who can successfully shepherd shell-shocked 16-and 17-year-old pupils through the grueling process. As noted by the Wikipedia article on the show, this character is played by “Jitendra Kumar as Jitendra Kumar a.k.a. Jeetu Bhaiya: a fictionalised version of himself.” (Kumar was a civil engineering student at IIT Kharagpur before going into acting.)
Kota’s rise as an educational coaching center began in 1980s, when it was an industrial town producing, among other goods, polished building stone and synthetic fabric. At the time, however, many of its local industries were failing, a process that accelerated after the Indian economy opened to global forces in 1991. Adversity, however, generated some creative responses. As explained by Neelam Gupta in a 2016 Governance Now article:
The story begins with Vinod Kumar Bansal, who was once an employee of JK Synthetics. … As he had good mathematics skills, children from the neighbourhood flocked to him for help. One day he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a condition that rapidly weakens one’s muscles and bones. This disease restricted his movement and he could no longer work in the factory. Fearing he might lose his job, Bansal started giving maths tuitions at his home. In 1986, one of his students cracked the IIT joint entrance exam (IIT-JEE). Next year, some 100 students had joined his classes and by 1998, Bansal was coaching more than 1,000 students. Soon he built a big building in the city’s industrial area and set up Bansal Classes. In 2000, one of his students topped and 300 others cracked the IIT-JEE. It created a stir. “There was a long queue outside my study centre and I finally selected 18,000 students that session,” he recalls.
As often happens, Bansal’s success generated spin-off companies founded by his own employees. Students increasingly flocked to Kota partly because few Indian secondary schools offer adequate preparation for the demanding higher-education entrance exams. It is perhaps not coincidental that the state of Rajasthan, in which Kota is located, has one of India’s worst educational systems (see the literacy map below). Another draw is social. Many students find that it is much easier to devote themselves to intensive study in a city where tens of thousands of people their own age were doing the same than they would at home, as the show itself emphasizes. By 2010, 40,000 students a year were coming from all over northern India to study in Kota. Enrollment jumped a few years later when some key entrance exams changed from a state-level to a national basis. The annual figure, as noted above, is now around 150,000.
Not surprisingly, other Indian cities are hoping to profit from the educational coaching boom. A 2018 Hindustan Times article features the headline, “Why Are There ‘Education Malls’ in Ranchi? Inside the New Kotas of India.” Ranchi, like most rising coaching centers, and Kota itself, is a sizable but secondary city located in India’s poorer and educationally lagging north-central belt (see the map posted below). An exception is Madurai in the south, which has long been noted as a major university city and as the “cultural capital” of the state of Tamil Nadu. As Wikipedia notes, “Madurai has been an academic centre of learning for Tamil culture, literature, art, music and dance for centuries.”
As the creators of Kota Factory know what they are writing about, one can even learn a little science from watching the show. Episode Three, which focuses on inorganic chemistry and the many exceptions to its rules, including exceptions to the exceptions, is the prime case in point. The prolonged diatribe of Mayur More (playing the student Vaibhav Pandey) about the frustrations of studying the subject is one of the most amusing and riveting bits of acting that I have ever seen – and by far the most intellectually informed.