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“Marks don’t matter”: Indian comics try to comfort students amid a suicide crisis

Vir Das
Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP
Give the kids a break.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Every year, between March and June, millions of school students in India find themselves under the cosh.

A section goes delirious with joy, soaking in the accolades and attention after the results for the the annual class 10 and class 12 exams are released. Another group, having done reasonably well, simply moves on.

And those that fail sink into despair, not having met the expectations of parents and teachers, or securing college admissions. Often, this results in tragedy as the students, unable to bear the pressure of expectations, commit suicide. Every hour, one child in India takes his or her own life often due to failure, fear of failure, forced career choices, and the general stigma attached to mental distress.

So, for some time now, India’s new crop of comedians has tried soften the blow for this embattled group, mixing humour with some key life lessons.

Laughing it off

In 2015, standup comedian Zakir Khan pulled no punches. He took digs at all those, including the neighbourhood “uncle” with the creepy smile, who constantly remind students of the “boards,” a much-dreaded umbrella term for the class 10 or class 12 annual tests in India.

Many like Khan have hit close to home while making light of the pressure-cooker atmosphere in the run-up to the exam and admission season. Kenny Sebastian and Piyush Sharma have discussed the ridiculousness of obsessing over marks and the media’s fetish for “toppers.” Comedian Ssumier S Pasricha, in his avatar as the popular “Pammi Aunty,” offered his take on how marks have no bearing on real life.

All India Bakchod (AIB), one of the most popular comic groups, asked its viewers to share their experiences of not doing well in exams and still getting it right later in professional life.

These attempts often evoke positive responses.

Over 77,600 people liked AIB’s post, which also got more than 1,000 comments. “Scored 59 in my exams. Much less than everyone around me. But now I’m the youngest person in the world to be part of an elite expedition team researching Anacondas in the Amazon rainforest,” 17-year-old aspiring herpetologist Saish Solankar commented on AIB’s post. “Marks don’t matter. Exposure does.” 

Back in 2016, Vir Das, the first Indian-origin comedian to bag a Netflix special, posted a heart-warming video to help students. The next year, he shared his own mark-sheet, with low grades, on Facebook.

This year, as Das’s old video sparked some negative responses, with a handful insisting that marks do matter, the standup artiste clapped back:

Mallika Dua, who shot to fame with her multi-character dubsmash appearances, also got candid about failing the first year of her degree course at Delhi University (DU). She was admitted to her graduation course based on her extra-curricular activities—up to 5% of DU’s seats are reserved for students who get in by demonstrating prowess across categories like dance, music, theatre, debate, and other fine arts. Eventually, she went abroad and “did really well” away from all the rote-learning.

“Yes, big companies consider pedigree important but I highly doubt a 93 percenter is an idiot and a 98 percenter some genius,” she wrote in a screenshot shared on Instagram. “The idea is to make the system realise it’s uselessness, not the children who have no choice but to abide by it.”

However, it is not easy to wish away the importance of marks among Indian students. Like a post on News18 said:

Like, good for you Mallika Dua but what about the students who cannot afford to go abroad? And failing in University would essentially mean repeating a year. There’s no short cut in here.

Why the stress

Indeed, there is no escaping marks and their implications in the Indian education system, partly because of the way it is structured.

With demand for seats in institutions of higher learning only rising, the cut-off thresholds for admission is often unreasonable. “At Lady Shri Ram College, an aspirant needs to have an aggregate score of 100.5% to get into the Psychology (H) course,” the Times of India newspaper reported in June 2015.

Then, there are the much sought-after professional courses—engineering, medicine, and others. At the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technlogy (IIT), for instance, the acceptance rate is a minuscule 2%. In 2017, nearly 12,00,000 students appeared for the exam to win the 11,000-odd seats in the IITs. Thus, the mad scramble and the early preparations by teachers, parents, and millions of students.

Under pressure, parents splurge thousands of rupees hourly on specialised tutorials. Over 70 million students—over a quarter of the country’s student population—are enrolled in this parallel education system. Data from industry association Assocham reveal that 87% of primary school children and 95% of high schoolers in metropolitan cities opt for private tuition.

And when after all that students are unable to “make it” by scoring well or even, at times, failing, everything comes down on them like a ton of bricks. What adds to their woes is a lack of a system to counsel them or suggest a plan B. It is here that media, internet celebrities, and even movies have come to play a constructive role. And India’s young comedians are chipping in.

“It increases awareness that we are all vulnerable. When these people come out and talk about how they failed but are still so successful, people can relate and think ‘I can still be successful, too’,” said Richa Singh, co-founder of online counselling platform YourDost. “It needs to happen more.”

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