'Aspirants' Review: A flawed but emotional experience replete with joy, hope, failure and frustration

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review 

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

Sometimes stories can bring places to life. That’s precisely what TVF’s new series ‘Aspirants’ succeeds in doing. It manages to present West Delhi’s Old Rajinder Nagar, the famous hub of UPSC aspirants, in all its glory. As an uncommitted UPSC aspirant myself (as I was always inclined towards cinema and the arts), I never really got a chance to experience the vibes of Old Rajinder Nagar even though I used to hear a lot about the place from my peers and still do from my juniors. It won’t be wrong to call it the Kota of UPSC preparation (some even go to the extent of calling it the Mecca of UPSC preparation). The iconic neighbourhood offers a wide array of leading coaching institutes, libraries that are functional 365/24/7, tea and samosa points as well as comprehensive study materials for all subjects. Every year thousands of aspirants come here to prepare for the UPSC but only a handful succeed in cracking the country’s premier examination.

A primary character (a failed UPSC aspirant turned teacher) in the first episode of the five episode series proclaims to a new batch of students, “Old Rajinder Nagar is the home to countless tales of emotions, aspirations, failures and frustrations. If you get the time then look at it from the heights. You will discover a sea of unlimited dreams.” Aspirants is about the past and present of three friends, Abhilash (Naveen Kasturia), Guri (Shivankit Parihar) and SK (Abhilash Thapliyal), who are UPSC aspirants. While the past follows their struggle to crack the examination while living in Old Rajinder Nagar during 2012-13, the present examines their lives and failures six years later as we learn that only one of them (Abhilash) eventually succeeded in cracking the exam. While Guri now runs a shoe factory in his hometown, SK teaches UPSC aspirants in Old Rajinder Nagar.

But why is the UPSC exam so tough to crack? “Because once you get selected you will have the task of running the world’s biggest and most complex democracy,” SK tells his students. He also talks about three qualities needed to crack UPSC (it is often wrongly assumed that cracking UPSC is same as getting qualified for the Indian Administrative Service, for only the top rankers qualify for IAS): patience, perseverance, and dedication. In SK’s words, “This is not a normal race. This is a marathon. You need to be the tortoise as the rabbit doesn’t win here.”

While watching Aspirants one gets a feeling that the subject deserves a more wholehearted examination. Perhaps the best thing about the series is that it encourages aspirants to let go of the negative mindsets. It also reminds us that life doesn’t end with UPSC. For, there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Often the desperation to crack the exam emerges out of the peer pressure and the urge to impress those around us. And usually it’s this desperation that makes the job even tougher for the aspirants.

Now, many comparisons are being drawn between Aspirants and Kota Factory (the earlier TVF series about IIT aspirants) even though the latter unfolds is in a far more realistic space. The former, on the other hand, despite the intended realism, isn’t devoid of Bollywood-esque tropes. Also, Aspirants is far more bleaker in comparison to Kota Factory. And it makes sense. For, when one fails to qualify for IIT one still has hope. But when one fails to crack UPSC often one has no backup left as already one has moved into one’s late 20s or early 30s. So it is a make or break situation of sorts if things are not planned properly which is more often the case. Just as a senior aspirant called Sandeep Bhaiya tells Abhilash, “Plan B is for losers,” before acknowledging how wrong he really was to not have a Plan B in place. There is a beautiful slo-mo sequence at the end of the penultimate episode. The results to the UPSC prelims are out and all the students are running to see if they have qualified or not. And suddenly it starts to rain and while everyone has an umbrella only Sandeep and Abhilash symbolically don’t. For, they are the only ones without a Plan B.

Aspirants is a fun watch with some nice emotional moments and is very relatable if you have ever taken any competitive exams in India. It's certainly not as bad as most critics have proclaimed it to be. Also it's not as great as some fans are calling it. The performances and dialogue, however, do elevate it. Sunny Hinduja is just perfect as Sandeep Bhaiya—a truly immaculate demonstration of mastery over a character in the realistic space. Naveen Kasturia, Shivankit Parihar and Abhilash Thapliyal are also superb in their roles. Namita Dubey, Kuljeet Singh, and Bijou Thaangjam also deliver memorable performances. The final episode nearly ruins the series as the makers fail to take a stand. The episodes of Aspirants are impregnated with embedded marketing (product/service placements) which after a point gets a little too much. But it’s something that perhaps can be overlooked as all the five episodes are made available for free on YouTube.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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