'Placebo' Review: The Kids Aren't Alright (But This Film Is)

Abhay Kumar’s experimental documentary on the lives of students at India's finest medical college meanders, but eventually crawls under your skin and stays there.

05/09/2016 9:09 PM IST | Updated 06/09/2016 8:16 AM IST
A still from the 'Placebo' teaser.

About 30 minutes into Abhay Kumar's Placebo, an experimental documentary that debuted on Netflix this weekend, two young medical students talk seriously about how human evolution has been completely screwed up our over-developed cerebrums, citing the existence of suicide as proof. "It is the basic nature of all living things to survive and reproduce," says one of them, Saumil Chopra, as his hostel-mate — credited simply as 'K' — agrees. "It [our cerebrum] has killed these things!"

About a minute later, the two of them decide to download an instant messenger notification sound and play it on loop, giggling and grooving along with it as though it were a full-fledged beat.

Such stark shifts in content and tone define Placebo, a fascinating account of Kumar's time in the hostel of India's most prestigious medical college: the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi. I'd watched a slightly longer cut at last year's Mumbai Film Festival and, admittedly, not loved it. Here's what I'd said about it then in my diary piece (which is NOT the same as a review):

"A look at the lives of students living in the depressing hostel rooms of Delhi's All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which sees one or two suicides a year due to its hyper-competitive and isolative nature. Placebo begins well, but completely loses its way in the second act, devolving into a loose documentation of student life, peppered with somewhat pretentious psycho-babble and decently-executed-but-tedious animated sequences.

Precious screen-time is wasted on capturing the shenanigans of 20-year-olds being 20-year-olds (smoking joints, juvenile one-upmanship, rocking out to Black Sabbath etc) and by the time the film got to what it really wanted to say, it had almost lost me. Even so, I would recommend this film to those looking to watch interesting documentaries from India, largely for the sincerity with which it has clearly been made."

While some of those problems still remain, a second viewing of its version on Netflix proved to be far more rewarding. The new cut (edited by Kumar and Archana Phadke; Bollywood veteran Deepa Bhatia acted as consulting editor) felt a lot tighter than the version I'd seen previously. For instance, the aforementioned 'rocking out to Black Sabbath' scene seemed to be missing, as were a few others. Plus, this time around, I wasn't burdened by 'festival fatigue' — a real thing that reduces your attention span and objectivity to mush when you're watching four films a day and surviving on mostly junk food and coffee.

Placebo begins when the director's younger brother Sahil, a student at AIIMS, injures his right arm after he punches a window in frustration for reasons unknown. Kumar decides to live in the hostel incognito after this incident to "find answers", following the lives of three of his brother's fellow students (as well as his brother).

An AIIMS student, credited simply as Dr K, in a still from 'Placebo'.

A lot of the film's appeal comes from its ability to portray these characters' distinctive and authentic personalities with honesty, although it is sometimes at the risk of treating them with a touch of disdain. Kumar is clearly most fascinated by K (whose name is revealed 'accidentally' towards the end), a pot-smoking jokester who revels in being almost aggressively rebellious and existentialist. Next is the likeable Chopra, a genial chap who seems impressively at ease discussing his deepest personal issues in enjoyably expletive-laden Hindi. Thirdly, there's Sethi, whose personal confessions and straight-laced attitude tend to be amusing, but who nevertheless gets the opportunity to deliver a couple of the film's bigger insights.

Placebo, at first, seems structured awkwardly — it begins on a grim note, with students protesting the management's decision to brush off the suicide of a student as just another case of depression and their inability to cope with the academic pressure (an early slate informs us that the acceptance rate at AIIMS is several times lower than at Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Then, for much of its running length, it simply shows us the lives of these students, as well as an occasional progress report on Sahil and his injured arm.

This mid-portion — a good 30-40 minutes — is its most precarious, and not everything works here. While the aforementioned trimming helps balance the film a lot better, there's still a nagging feeling that we're looking at filler footage that isn't giving us anything new to work with — it keeps making the same points again and again. The decision to use animation to represent Kumar's own thoughts as well as the state of the hostel's inhabitants is somewhat questionable. While those sequences (developed by Rajesh Thakare and Roy Vasanth) are hauntingly good by themselves, the whole concept of 'The Boy With No Face' struck me as a tad too indulgent — it's like listening to a perfectly respectable jazz trumpet piece that randomly introduces a tabla solo mid-way for no other reason than to introduce a tabla solo.

As Placebo switches gears and goes into social justice mode in its riveting final moments, its flaws become a little more forgivable.

I could've also done without some portions of Kumar's monotone voice-over, which occasionally strays into non-sequitur country. Another collection of scenes, in which he talks about how his own subjects don't "know him" struck me as needless posturing. And then there are the token heavy-handed visual metaphors one really didn't need, such as a clichéd, lingering shot of a plastic bag flying around in the wind.

By the end of the second act, just when all the meandering has begun to wear your patience down, things take an unexpectedly dramatic and tragic turn in the form of another student suicide. It is here that you begin to realise that you aren't just a passive viewer; your experience is a simulation of the same agony that Kumar went through while trying to put this documentary together. We're truly in this together, it seems to be saying.

As Placebo switches gears and goes into social justice mode in its riveting final moments, its flaws become a little more forgivable. By the time its final montage — set to a lilting Prateek Kuhad tune — arrives, the film has crawled under your skin and built a home there.

'Placebo' is available on Netflix for subscribers around the world.

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