I saw ‘Placebo’ & can’t get it out of my head

The film ended. The credits rolled. The audience applauded. I sat there silent, blank, wondering What did I just see?

The story began in March 2013 when my friend showed us the crowd-funding teaser for Placebo and said that the filmmakers want to make a pitch at our film festival. The teaser was a true teaser. We wanted to know ‘What is Placebo?’ and what is this ‘feature length film’ going to show. It had captivated our senses. We were on and that was when I first met and spoke to Abhay Kumar, the director of the film.

Months rolled by and after a lot of struggle (that I could make out from Abhay’s facebook timeline) the film finally saw a release last year. It has gone around the world and received innumerable standing ovations.

For some reason or the other I kept missing the screenings of the film that happened here in Mumbai in the last few months. When I got to know about the Peepshow screening at antisocial Khar last Tuesday, the timing being convenient, I finally was going to get some answers.

The only thing I was worried about was- Since we have so high expectations from this film and that for so long, what if we are disappointed?

Well, after watching the film, was I disappointed? No.

Was I highly impressed? No.

What happened then?

After the short discussion with Archana Phadke, the producer and associate director of the film, my friends and I left the place. Standing outside the venue, we had an unprecedented discussion about the film. About the honesty. The authenticity. And the very thought of making the film.

*Minor Spoilers ahead*

‘There was nothing new’, I told my friend.

‘What are you saying?’ she asked in disbelief.

I couldn’t explain. I am going to write a blog post as soon as I get some time, I thought. And more importantly, I need to speak to Abhay regarding the film.

Placebo is defined as ‘a medicine or procedure prescribed for the psychological benefit to the patient rather than for any physiological effect’.

Yes. But what does that mean?

The film talks about a brutal reality that we either don’t care about or are too complacent to do anything about. It shows us what goes inside AIIMS- one of the most premier educational institutions of India. It talks about the life of students. The atmosphere in the hostel. The dreams and aspirations they have and those that have been created for them. An unexpected incident that creates the major part of the climax. I talks about depression. And about a lack of support at those times. All of it documented in real time. Documented by being a part of the place and its people for two whole years. Documented after an incident, that was too personal for the filmmaker, happened.

‘Have you seen Boyhood?’ I asked my friend.

More than the story that Boyhood showed, I loved and appreciated it because of the 12 years of dedication of Richard Linklater in making the film. It was this underlying obstinacy and waywardness- a conviction that your project is good- for which I wanted it to win the Oscar. And that’s exactly what I appreciated most about Placebo.

Placebo had struck a chord somewhere in me. How? I am not exactly sure. And I am not certain if saying this is right or not- I think I have lived through a lot of what was shown in the film (at a different situation and level of course) and probably that understanding of the thing at ground-zero is what made the film ‘nothing new’ for me.

I have written about this extensively in a previous post, but to sum it up in brief: Moving to Delhi 8 years ago and living in a hostel where everyone around you is on the ‘IIT-AIIMS’ rampage, when ‘If you can’t crack IIT, you are nothing in life’ mantra goes around in every discussion, when you are loaded with pressure that you never anticipated and are suddenly forced to handle it without actually understanding the purpose of the rat-race, things fail. A topper in the 10th Boards, passed in Class 11 when his Physics teacher gave him 2 grace marks ‘because you have the potential to do better and mustn’t waste 2 months in preparation of a re-examination’. (Read: The Story of My Moving to Delhi and Why I Never Talked About It)

Placebo went on to highlight the issue of student suicides due to pressure arising from academics and other life situations. Having witnessed an ‘almost-died’ situation in my close-quarters on similar lines few years back, I fail to understand loads of things and question instead- Why do we tend to keep running in this race? Is it simply because everyone is doing the same? Because we have no other option in sight? Because we are too afraid to take any risks? Or because we have been blinded and now we see just what the world wants us to see?

More recently, I have questioned the purpose of doing the job I am currently in. I enjoy what I do. But the immense corporate pressure – is it ever going to be worth it? Why is this current generation – the ones who fought and left the ‘engineering’ and ‘medical’ future behind- standing at a crossroad where they are questioning their own decision? Or are they struggling to break a barrier that the society is holding too closely?

I don’t know and I am still looking for a satisfactory answer to this and a lot of related questions.

Consider this habit of writing blogs. I have done it for 8 years. I have made this the place to vent out my anger, frustration and happiness. It doesn’t benefit me in any way apart from giving a psychological satisfaction that I have a place where I can say anything without caring about who is reading and what they think of me because this is MY place. Then why? Is it that placebo which I seem to have administered on myself many years ago without even realising it?

One of Abhay’s previous short films ‘That sort of a day’ acted as a huge reference for me for its visual storytelling technique while I was making Told Untold.

The amazingly executed animation shots in Placebo reminded me of my poor-budgetless-execution of the animation in my film.

Placebo’s ‘Nameless’ guy reminded me of the ‘Anonymous’ guy in my film’s intro.

Placebo’s honest ‘You cared about your film more than you cared about me’ line said by the filmmaker’s brother reminded me of the hospital scene from my first documentary ‘Leukemia- Not just a Disease!’ where my sister says ‘You were disappointed since morning because I was in pain and you couldn’t go through the shoot as per schedule. But see now you have such awesome shots of the hospital.’

I had 5 hours of footage to be converted into a 10 minute film while editing Leukemia and I was stuck with no clue how to go about it. Abhay and Archana had over 1000 hours of footage to be converted into a 90 minute film. I just wonder how they ever did it!

Having followed Abhay’s life on Placebo for over 3 years, I definitely was in awe of the effort, time and dedication put in by him and Archana in the project. I knew this was something close to him and meant something big, both as a filmmaker and as a person. And that’s why the film didn’t disappoint me.

My film ‘Told Untold’ doesn’t show anything new. It documents something we see everyday but are completely ignorant about until it happens to someone close to us. My thoughts were on similar lines with Placebo, although both are set in two very diverse situations.

I am not sure if this comparison is even valid or not. Or how Abhay might be laughing on reading this right now- But I was amazed at the simple yet strikingly common thought process that watching Placebo made me realise Abhay and I possess. One did something about it and is now getting standing ovations for his efforts spanning many years. The other is writing this blog entry (without any clue of where it is headed) because after 4 days of watching the film, he still can’t get Placebo out of his head.

Leaving you with this festival trailer of Placebo. Watch it for its rawness, for its honesty and for the effort that the filmmaker put in to bring out something we are too complacent to care about but need to.