By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on February 12, 2016
It has been more than a week since I watched Placebo. Yet, it hasn’t left me yet. I keep getting flashes from the film - of K, the cynical scholar talking about Laplace’s Demon, of Sahil, admitting to being completely broken & crying for help and of Chopra, with his pseudo-intellectual babble about evolution & how it has created complications for humans by overpowering the two most basic instincts- survival and reproduction.
Placebo is not journalistic reportage. It’s not objective. The filmmaker Abhay Kumar decided to make the film when his brother got involved in an accident on the campus of one the most revered institutions medical institutions in the country- The All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). After having witnessed the tragedy from such a close distance, Kumar set out to investigate and document the 'Truth'. Realizing that there was no way permission for a project like this would be granted, he decided to remain under cover.
He calls this documentary a 'social experiment'.
However, as time went by and the events unfolded, what Kumar had in mind got blurrier. In the beginning of the film we see Kumar saying, “I have a faint memory of why I came here in the first place.” Kumar narrates the film himself, bringing in the filmmakers' perspective to the narrative. We feel his presence in every frame, behind the camera, as he asks questions, curious as he is, to understand the lives & thinking of these four individuals that he's chosen to follow. But most of the time he's simply observing.
The students comply, sometimes getting annoyed at the omnipresent camera, but willing to express. They are eager to share too.
The guys we see in this film are amongst the brightest minds in our country. The education system says so, the extremely competitive entrance set-up proves that. And everybody, from their parents to the students themselves, believe this. And that is the burden they carry.
They’re lonely, ridden with pressures, insecurities and self-doubt. Having come thus far, many of them don’t know why they want to become doctors. One of them, Chopra, says jovially, “It’s the great Indian combo. One son an engineer, another a doctor.”
At an age when one is just starting to explore life & what it has to offer, these guys are already boxed in, set on a career & life that is often not of their choosing.
The film, that starts out as a fly-on-the-wall account of four guys living inside the walls of the institute, takes a turn somewhere around the middle and starts probing into the deeper, pressing issues of alienation, failure, loneliness, & suicide.
‘The guy with no face’ keeps appearing in the film again & again, a blurred, shaky image of a guy standing in the corridors of the hostel.
The two years that Kumar spent in the institute hostel saw 4 student suicides. An episode in between captures the complete lack of communication between the management and the students, following the suicide of a student in the hostel. The film follows the students’ demonstrations, the management’s apathetical reaction, the eventual fizzling out of the protest and the ultimate sense of incoherence and loss that the protagonists deal with.
‘I have seen him so many times in the corridor.’ ‘He was right there, and I didn’t know him.’- the students react to the suicide in the most humane way. Does it really take the loss of a person’s life for the world to know that they exist? The question benumbs you.
The boy with no-face appears again & again in the film
Kumar describes Placebo as hybrid in form, using animation to emphasize the truth that lurks in the corridors of the institute. In all the candidness of the film, Kumar’s animated sequences and metaphors stand out, stressing the point he wants to make.
The opening sequence of the film is one of the most visually captivating. It is of a mice being strung from wires for an experiment. They try to hang on to a wire- they struggle to hold on with their tiny paws, but ultimately, give away and fall. Much like the plight of the students, who try their best to hold on and when exhausted, let go.
While talking about the issue, Kumar says, “There are two sets of statistics about India. India is a young country, with 65 percent of its population below the age of 30 years. On the other hand, India also has the highest rate of suicide between the ages 15 to 29.”
“Also, after every suicide, we see it being quoted in the news that the person who committed suicide was depressed. Depression is a term so casually thrown about that it has become a parody of itself,” says Kumar.
AIIMS is one of the premiere institutes of India & is symptomatic of how our education system works. Students from every corner of the country aspire to be in this place, but there’s room only for a few at the top. Students who struggle to reach this point, find it extremely unnerving to live up to the expectations & the highly competitive environment. There are so many factors working on them at the same time - competition, class and caste divides, alienation and so many more. However, the kind of prestige these degrees hold acts as a placebo, making us blind to all the other shortcomings.
During the post-screening interaction at Arbhaat Short Film Club’s event in Pune, Kumar recounted another incident. During the time that Kumar spent at AIIMS campus, four students committed suicide. Kumar recalls that after the suicide of a girl, her best friend had shut herself out for a week. She refrained from taking any calls and when she finally did reply after a week, she refused to talk about it. She had taken a week’s time to push this horrific, life-scarring incident into one corner of her mind as the final exams were approaching and the cutthroat competition wouldn’t spare her if she didn’t do well.
There was a strange feeling, like carrying some heavy burden on my chest, as I joined in the applause after the screening. Confirming my uneasiness, Kumar, in the Q&A session said, "Sometimes it feels shameful to accept a standing ovation for the film as an excellent creative artwork." The film confirms the worst of our fears, proving what we already know, but have chosen not to think too much about.
Having made the film at a tremendous personal cost, staying under cover in the institute for over two years, editing 800+ hours of footage into a 96 minute documentary, the real challenge that Kumar faces now is to take this Placebo to the audience. "The biggest challenge is to take this film to people, to distribute this film."
Placebo isn't just a film, it's an important document of our times. In the finest tradition of documentary filmmaking, it shows us a mirror to our baser selves, challenging us to acknowledge the truth that we are happy to ignore.
“This is a story I will tell myself many times over to remind myself that it has happened,” we hear him saying at one point in the film. And that's what we need to do. We need to tell this story to ourselves, to every other student, to every parent and to educationists, academicians as well as policy makers. We hope that happens and like Kumar says, "Maybe this film can become a tool for them to be able to operate in a better manner."