By Deep Guha & Suruchi Das
Placebo, the 2014 documentary film by Abhay Kumar, is based on four medical students who
were studying at one of the most challenging undergraduate medical colleges of the world; All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi.
Placebo asks questions that are ruminative. It captures an inch of a vast sea. A sea that has
monsters in its womb. A sea, ready to devour any unprepared voyager whole. Flesh and bone.
But that’s not all. This guerrilla-style documentary also paints the picture of what lies beyond.
Either a world full of possibilities or a void that stares right into your eyes and haunts you for the rest of your life. The film has very efficiently portrayed that human beings as social animals are connected by a certain ethos they can't articulate, and at the same time are all lonely beings floating into oblivion.
Placebo is playing with the opposites in its structure. Although a documentary in its approach, the film has the lucidity of actorly catharsis, but how? With due diligence of the universe, the events of the film have fallen to the molds of the cinematic urgency of a true story. It almost seems like that fortunately or unfortunately, Abhay Kumar was at the right place at the right time.
He takes 4 med-students as his subjects and follows their lives and activities. And what comes to light isn’t something that the authorities would want you to see. Inside AIIMS, one of the most prestigious institutions of our country is a vortex. A vortex created by the conflict of optimism and nihilism. While the film starts off with a festival, it radically shifts its tone towards something that is, well to mildly put it, dark. The film captures how life is on the campus. And how the lack of communication between the authorities and the students plays a critical role in the case of numerous nervous breakdowns and suicides. Placebo also addresses how attributing the cause of student suicides to depression is merely a way for the authorities to not “face the music.” The subjects, or more aptly, the characters of the documentaries are some of the finest minds that the country has to offer. And throughout the documentary, their acute observation of the rigid and failing system helps the audience understand how despair seeps into their lives. They have a philosophical understanding of the paradox that they live in, which makes you realize that everything including all of us, is part of the problem and we will never be able to recuperate because in the process of removing it we may vanish too. Placebo captures the wall that is created between the seniors and juniors of the institute from the first day, therefore taking away an option for the students that can act as an unofficial support system.
Abhay Kumar artfully infuses animated sequences with dystopian photography to convey his
vision. Placebo reaches for a structure without any ambition. Perhaps that is the reason it is so pure and painful at the same time. It is the perfect cinema. It introduces you to the leads, takes you to their lives, and plainly settles there. The 1 hour 36 min film offers you pain with truth, happiness with truth, and laughter with truth and finally, it takes everything away.
The filmmaker is drawing many paths for his viewer at a single time. He is following these
students at the same time trying to figure out his personal place in the scope of things. Although he is losing himself in the process of giving the audience the knowledge of truth and judgment.
The film has not captured the answers and it doesn't even try to. Maybe for the fact that the
answers to the questions can’t come from a unanimous voice. At least not now. But it reaches
out for the questions. The nihilistic conundrum we all see, breath, and trod on but are still
stranger to. It asks all kinds of questions big, small, logical, beyond logic. Though a
documentary at heart, the documentation has a rhythmic dual with drama behind reality and the reality itself. It is cohesive yet distant at every high the film captures.
In the very beginning, it is established that Placebo is a personal journey to capture the truth,
but at a very steep cost. It engages the audience with the mystery of loss and hopelessness.