‘Placebo,’ the “AIIMS students” documentary recently released on Netflix, is as much about the filmmaker as those being filmed.
“I want to look thin. I’ve always had the image of skinny me, swimming through a swimming pool.” If I hadn’t seen Abhay Kumar’s documentary, Placebo, if I’d just read these words on a page like this, I’d have thought they were from a woman. It’s how we’re conditioned to think, that body issues are something we’ll find in Femina, along with ten ways to make your man happy and how to pull off six-inch heels. But these words come from a man, a student at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi). Instantly, they change colour. The point isn’t that men don’t have insecurities about their looks. They most certainly do. But we rarely find them confessing to a camera. Consider this: “I have gynaecomastia. I mean, a man having development of breasts. I was very scared of the shit I would have to take [during the ragging period]. I knew these bastards would say, ‘Hey, he’s got boobs!’ This kind of teasing is very emotionally disturbing. It feels like you’re being called a hermaphrodite.”
Most films are about cause and effect. Placebo is about effect and cause. The film is Abhay’s attempt to come to grips with the fact that his brother Sahil, also an AIIMS student, smashed an arm through a glass window, and ended up with nerve damage and loss of motor control. Why would a perfectly “normal” person do something like this? Why do other students commit suicide? Are the triggers specific – say, ragging, or the pressure of competing with “some of the smartest minds of this nation”? (Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an acceptance rate of 9%, Harvard 7%, AIIMS less than 0.1%.) Or is there something in the water? Abhay calls Placebo a “search for answers.”
After Sahil’s hospitalisation in 2011, Abhay smuggled himself into the AIIMS hostel and began filming students. They talked about wanting to be thin. They talked about man-breasts. One of them said he imagined a world without colour, except red. “In that world, to create a work of art, a man will have to drain his veins.” Then we have the boy who collects beetles. He calls them “milestones,” commemorating whatever he was doing when he collected the insect. “I know, it’s unethical, it’s cruel. But still, it feels okay.” At one level, it’s not difficult to hop on to these trains of thought. We were, after all, this age once. We know what it’s like in college, when life’s great questions loom before us and we turn into the love children of Plato and Pink Floyd, hoping the answers will present themselves if we gaze long and hard at our navels. But few of us would reveal this face to a filmmaker.
I asked Abhay how, as a documentary filmmaker, he’s able to tell when someone is truly opening up, as opposed to someone who is just saying things for effect because a camera is trained on him. (“Did you just comb your hair because we are going to shoot?” he asks a student. The answer: “Yeah.”) Abhay said there’s no such thing as an “objective” documentary. Observation stimulates its own reality, and the presence of an observer changes the observed. Here’s a student, after Abhay enters his room: “The camera is a weird thing. One moment you feel like looking at the camera and talking but then it’s so scary as well. You don’t know what’s going on inside it. The lens looks like some deep thing, as if something’s going on in its mind.” It sounds deep, all right. It also sounds like the philosophers we turn into once alcohol enters our system.
The film’s most startling moment comes when Sahil accuses Abhay of shooting this film instead of being with him, as he recovered. Abhay said, “What most people overlook is the effect of the act of observation on the observer. When I’m looking at the world through a camera, I’m calm, as there is a barrier – this instrument, which is filtering reality through my gaze. I could see tension building between us but I did not expect an outburst like that. But I was calm. I knew he was right.” The blow-up proved therapeutic. Till then, Sahil never looks at Abhay or the camera while talking. “I was infiltrating his space, his campus, his friends’ circle. It’s not a natural process. But that moment was a moment like – when we were young, sometimes we would get irritated with each other, start a fistfight. Afterwards, we’d feel lighter, almost better friends, shake hands and make up. This was that moment.”
Does one need to make a film to get to this moment with a sibling? Some people might call Abhay selfish, but there’s a long tradition of artists being blind to everything but their art. One of my favourite anecdotes is from the making of Doctor Zhivago, when David Lean was filming a scene aboard a freight train. An extra, playing a peasant woman, was running alongside the train. Omar Sharif held out his hand, but she couldn’t keep up. She tumbled and fell under the train. Lean yelled “Cut!” The extra had pulled her legs in, but she’d still broken a few bones. Lean asked an assistant to take her to the hospital and then issued this order: “Dress the double.” Sharif was shocked that Lean kept going, as though nothing had happened, but Lean said, “The general must keep the troops going, or the whole operation will break down.” You may have heard another version of this statement: The show must go on.
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