By Shivam Rastogi:
As the film begins, there is a voice that says, “This is a story that I will tell myself many times over to remind myself that it has happened.” It is 27-year old filmmaker Abhay Kumar from Chandigarh and the story is in the documentary called ‘Placebo’. Recently, I was able to catch the film in a ‘peepshow screening’ (peepshow because you literally have to peep in order to look at the screen)
Before the voice-over, come the statistics which state how the probability of getting in MIT is 7%, Harvard is 4% and AIIMS is 0.1%. Just imagine! One might wonder at the level of intelligence, determination and passion of those making it to the institute of such academic excellence. But is that all that really counts? What about the journey the students make inside the institution both mentally and physically?
After the filmmaker’s younger brother damaged his right hand in an act of violence, the filmmaker wondered at the absurdity behind it. In order to investigate further, he went on to live undercover with the brightest minds of the country in the AIIMS hostel for the next six months. As a fly-on-wall, he shot extensively, took interviews and documented everything that he could. The stay stretched to two long years instead of six months and the shot footage went over 1000 hours. This was the time he really stopped shooting and that too with external factors and constraints.
Now, lies the biggest question: What is ‘Placebo’?
As the filmmaker started to document his observations, he did not realise where it was heading. What started as an observation went on to become bigger, brutal and honest. It took the shape of a truth that covered various aspects such as academic pressure, administration negligence, parental pressure, ragging, depression and suicide.
Here, the journey of the filmmaker is the journey of the film. He risked everything in order to make something he believed in. When he ran out of resources, he even crowdfunded to complete the post-production and somehow managed all that he could. In the post-screening discussion, he mentioned how for almost seven months during editing, he and his two-member team used to spend countless hours to analyse the footage and to come up with something on the timeline. Now, that’s the conviction of a real filmmaker who never gives up. Something that is brave and inspirational.
There are a lot of things to be liked in the film, particularly the way it beautifully uses animation sequences to enhance the narrative. The visuals shot on Handycam, iPhone, iPad and DSLR are consistent in terms of aesthetics and colours, done by Siddharth Meer (the man behind Byomkesh Bakshy, Court etc.). Another thing about the film stands out is its non-linear editing which is really powerful, with such a vast footage one really needs to be extra patient about it which is done really well. Editing a 96 minute feature from almost 1000 hours of footage, now that’s a monumental task to achieve.
As the movie ends, one realises the bigger aspect of it. It engages and holds enough potential to start a conversation in any room. While the film witnesses three suicides in the hostel and protests arising from it, it is also saddening to realise how one can loosely use the term ‘depression’ in regular lingo without actually considering its real meaning. The film provides a vocabulary, a grammar to actually address the real aspects of the issue.
‘Placebo’ chooses four protagonists including Abhay’s brother and further the filmmaker largely delves deeper into their psychology through extensive interviews which are hilarious and on-point. Those four protagonists are relatable characters, belonging from different backgrounds and having different aspirations from life. It is interesting to see how they make sense even if they themselves feel that they are blabbering at times.
On the whole, this film is something which must be addressed. As we flip through the pages, we might see news of student studying in Kota coaching factory hanging himself under academic pressure. At that point of time, we actually know what that thing really is, therefore, the limitations within the system and policies need to be reviewed and constructed in a better way.
A conversation from the film that still cracks me up goes like, a guy talks about how he wants to get clicked by the poolside being totally fit in his trunks but further goes on to contemplate how earlier he was fit but didn’t have a pool and now the situation has reversed. Filled with such honest and fun conversations, this film very effectively says what it really wants to and the hard work pays off when the audience love is reciprocated.
One thing for sure, this film is worth everything and something that you might have never seen before. Much love ‘Placebo’!
Watch filmmaker Abhay Kumar share his experience of making ‘Placebo’ and the importance of addressing depression at Youth Ki Awaaz’s flagship event CONVERGE: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Depression