Placebo review: This documentary on Aiims shows us the grim reality of medicine in India
Placebo explores why filmmaker Abhay chose to pick up a camera and hang out at Aiims
“Right-handed Aiims doctor clears UPSC with left hand” – from the mass of news stories that have crowded the media in the past year, you may perhaps remember this one. Dr Sahil Kumar, we learnt from The Times of India’s report in July, “lost fine motor movements in his right hand after it got brutally jammed in a window” but displayed remarkable resilience over the months that followed, transforming himself from a right-hander to a left-hander, ultimately clearing his final year medical college exams, later cracking the UPSC and being accepted in the Indian Foreign Service.
The story behind that story though has been unveiled only this month. The source is not a newspaper but a film by Sahil’s brother. Abhay Kumar’s Placebo had its India premiere – to a very positive response – at Mumbai’s Jio MAMI festival followed days later by the just-concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).
Placebo is set in the rarely-probed innards of the intimidatingly competitive Aiims (Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences), but it is not about one college alone. It is about high-pressure academic environs, depression that leads to violence, suicides in institutions of higher learning, a lack of support systems and an apathetic administration. It is about a society that encourages youngsters to make the most important decisions of their lives unthinkingly based on what others want, it is about geniuses wracked with self-doubt and families that do not want us to think for ourselves.
The year was 2011. Sahil had, in an inexplicable explosion of fury during a fight on the Aiims campus, smashed his right arm into a glass window. The episode left his then 25-year-old elder sibling Abhay confused and distressed. What could possibly have prompted a seemingly stable final year student at India’s most prestigious medical school to inflict such severe wounds on himself, leading to a potentially career-destroying disability?
While Sahil underwent surgeries and undertook his own journey to recovery, Abhay discovered an alternative coping mechanism. Unknown to Aiims authorities, he embedded himself among the students to shoot the goings-on at the institute and record interviews with those who were willing and able to speak on camera.
The plan was that he would stay with them for a few months. The project took on a life of its own though, as the proposed six months turned into two years and almost 1,000 hours of footage. The result is the feature-length documentary Placebo, which combines intimate conversations with fly-on-the-wall observations all tied together by the use of some decidedly surreal animation.
Placebo begins with an intentionally misleading dual tone, Abhay’s staid voiceover forming a sharp contrast to the ramblings and/or frivolous banter of four interviewees (Sahil included). The film chronicles developments at Aiims during this time, which also includes a students’ protest and – quite chillingly – three suicides on campus.
As the narrative progresses and the boys settle into their role as subjects of a camera’s gaze, they reveal deeper and deeper secrets, occasionally even turning accusatory and borderline aggressive towards the filmmaker. This is when Abhay turns the lens on himself, providing us with among the most devastatingly grim, introspective and nakedly honest sequences in the film.
The narrative raises micro and macro-level questions, some vocalised by characters in this real-life story, some not, many going beyond the particular challenges of being at the country’s most sought-after school of medicine.
If you have gained admission to Aiims, you are probably used to being ranked first in your class in school. How do you cope with joining a group of students as brilliant as you? If you do not continue to stand first among them, does that mean you have become second best or average overnight?
Who do you discuss this problem with, considering how ridiculously minor it would seem to ordinary folk outside those hallowed walls?
How do different people cope with stress? Specifically here, instead of mollycoddling Sahil while he was recuperating, why did Abhay choose to pick up a camera and hang out at Aiims?
In doing so, was he neglecting his brother and running away from a challenging state of affairs? Has he exploited his brother’s misfortune to make a self-serving film or did he hope that his work would help Sahil to confront his own demons and aid in the healing process? Perhaps it is he – Abhay himself – who needs to heal. Perhaps this film is primarily for those of us like him who have known the helplessness of watching a loved one’s decline and wondering if we did enough to stop it.
These are questions viewers would do well to first answer for themselves before addressing them to the filmmaker. Over lunch at a rooftop restaurant in McLeodganj-Dharamshala, Abhay dwells at length on two other points raised by audience members at the DIFF screening. One asked why Placebo does not discuss caste-related strains at Aiims. Another wanted to know why all four interviewees were men, thus possibly conveying the impression to unknowing viewers outside India that Aiims does not have women students.
Frankly, these two questions take a rather narrow view of the film. Placebo is not an all-encompassing journalistic documentary which must perforce try to tackle every conceivable what, where, when, why and how; it is a deeply personal response to a trying situation and it should be evident to any viewer that: (a) in a gender-segregated scenario, the institute’s women’s hostel would have been far more inaccessible to a male filmmaker than the men’s hostel; and pursuing women students could clearly have led to problems since he was there without the administration’s permission.
And (b) while caste and gender issues would certainly play a role in these students’ lives, and while women and reserved caste students do find their way into the narrative – via a stray remark here, a visual there, a name that comes up elsewhere – this film is not about caste and gender, it is about a stressful academic world. Why stop at asking about caste and gender then? What about divisions caused by class, religion, sexual orientation, language and region? The point is, dealing with every single social equation at the institute would require a separate and very different film.
Still, politely asked questions always merit answers. Here are Abhay’s -
About caste: “Caste is definitely an issue, but it needs a more balanced point of view than mine. A film about caste politics should not be subjective like mine.”
About women: “I had to shoot with what was available to me. The sort of access I was looking at was simply not possible infiltrating the girls’ hostel. I tried talking to some of them during the protests because that’s where they came out to the boys’ hostel, but they were just not comfortable being on camera.”
About the choice of interviewees, Kumar says, “Most people at Aiims were not comfortable. I interviewed many more subjects including those from OBCs and lower castes, but it was a matter of who was willing to open up, give me time, talk about things. There are clear patterns indicating why each interviewee in the film was chosen. It was unrelated to caste or economics. Sahil is there because of the accident, K because he punched a glass window too, K introduces Chopra to the camera and Sethi is so child-like in how he looks at the world, so for me these four represented the archetype of students in our academic environment – the rebel and anarchist, the middle-class guy who wants to do something because his parents want him to, the guy obsessed with American pop culture and this bigger dream, and Sahil who is very average and doesn’t know what he’s doing. They represent for me a vast landscape of students.”
At one point, Placebo seems so intent on slamming Aiims’ indifferent administration that it appears to be gravitating towards absolving students of any contribution to their college-mates’ worries, especially when one of them is shown pontificating about a social vacuum left by the ban on ragging and the need for more interactions between seniors and juniors to defuse tensions on campus. That is a passing thought though since the film goes on to unflinchingly dwell on the students’ own flaws. In a particularly unnerving scene, a boy struggles to recall even the face of another who committed suicide during the course of the making of the film.
Placebo has been on the international film festival circuit for a while now. The young director tells us he deliberately delayed the premiere in India till after his four interviewees had graduated, to protect them from any possible action at the institute. Even now, he lets on, “Aiims does not know the film exists.” When the authorities inevitably find out, they are unlikely to be pleased at the picture they present.
Placebo, however, should not be labelled a sting operation on Aiims. It is an illuminating and highly disturbing docu feature that takes off from an acutely private starting point, then goes on to tell a story that could belong to anyone. This is why rather than aiming for a multiplex release (which would automatically raise his profile) or television (where censorship is inevitable), Abhay wants to travel with it to festivals and educational institutions across India so that it becomes a tool “to start a conversation”.
Aiims in this film is but a metaphor for an impending implosion among the human statistics populating institutions of higher learning and excellence in India. It is about students in mental turmoil, even agony, teetering on the precipice of self-destruction, and being pushed over the edge by a mindless, heartless, soulless system.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures Of An Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad
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