We have been tracking Abhay Kumar’s films for quite some time now. We had written about his short on the blog, and in earlier edition of MFF, when his another short was in Dimensions section, we had predicted his win too. Interestingly, this year he is back with a feature-lengh documentary, Placebo. And what a joy it is see a filmmaker making an impressive debut as he graduates from shorts to feature. One can easily spot some of the similar patterns in all his shorts and documentary.
And here’s Achyuth Sankar‘s review post on the film. This is his first post here.
We’ve all thought about the question, “What are the few things you absolutely cannot live without?”. For me, and all of them in equal importance (I’m not going to write the obvious things like food, water, air, etc), they are cinema, and a few really wonderful and beautiful people, some friends, some family. Cinema figures that high in my list, as it does in the lives of more than a few people I know.
At 6:30pm today, in a house full screening at MAMI, I gave 90 minutes of my life to that cherished thing which I can’t live without, cinema. It was a documentary called Placebo. It’s about the one of the most prestigious colleges in India (not any IIT, I’d rather not get into any more specifics), where the filmmaker’s brother is studying. The brother gets into a serious accident, and during his recovery, the filmmaker decides to stay in his brother’s hostel and document the lives being led there, in an attempt to understand what led to that accident (I won’t be referring to it as an accident any more, it was a self inflicted hurt, severe hurt). He follows the lives of four people in the said hostel, seemingly without any greater aim. Sometimes, a story chooses its storyteller, especially when it’s a story that needs to be told, and that is what happens to the documentarian here. The lives he begins to document shape up to be a small, but essential picture about the lives of students who have chosen the path of the elite by joining there. People are pressurized, or they’re not. Sometimes, they stumble into the doorstep of a revered institution with lofty dreams, but to many of them, simply making it there summarizes their dream. What does one do after that? What does one do when they have no idea where to go? What guidance does one get?
I was contemplating, while driving back home, why do most of the absolute greats of cinema talk about serious things like depression, disconnect, alienation, fear. Why not happiness? The question has come up many times before, but no answer till today. It is because.. when things are good, when we are happy, we are already ready to share. But when things are going down the shit hole, not even a handful of us can talk about it and admit “Hey, I’m fucked up and I need help”. That’s why it is so much more potent, when a film talks about things that nobody likes to, wants to or knows how to talk about. Suddenly, we feel a resonance within that isolated corner of our mind.
That’s what Placebo is.
That slight resonance, which reminds us of the importance of our own feelings. But more than that, it talks about something a lot more. It’s a documentary, with the filmmaker going to a college to understand why his brother hurt himself as badly. But a story that needs to be told chooses its own storyteller, and this college, and the stories of all the students who’ve lived there, chose this filmmaker. One shocking suicide after another, and it’s no longer just about a personal exploration, it’s about all of us. All of us who’ve studied, who’ve felt pressurized. All of us who, I dare say, can’t even begin to imagine the true extent of desperation, where the phrase “give up” doesn’t mean settle for lower grades or go to a less reputed institute. All of us who have been lost, at one point or the other, looking at the sea of people around us filled with genius, as we catch ourselves wondering “How the fuck am I going to make a mark in all of this?”.
There is one particular part in the film, where a character says something along the lines of “We are all isolated. You’re here talking to me, but I’m isolated inside and you’re isolated inside. My words aren’t my exact thoughts. But only I understand my isolation. You know the fucked up part? You think you understand, but you don’t.”
Placebo is truly a story that begs to be told. You can see it evolve in itself. The original intent of the filmmaker wasn’t to talk about student suicides or the casual indifference of college management or depression. It was merely an investigation, a very personal one at that. But as the story begins to tell itself through the storyteller, you won’t care about the change of course. Because the story needs to be told, and we all need to let it.
Romanticism aside, it took (in the filmmaker’s own words) a 1000 hours of handycam footage and constant questioning of intent to bring out this 90 minute long story. 1000 hours, vs 90 minutes. To look for that story which has revealed itself to you, and to do it justice, that’s no easy task. Because it’s not something you’ve concocted in your head, it’s all there. It’s all already there. The loss of aim, loss of hope and dreams, the crisis of faith and loss of ideals, the pressure, loneliness and depression that we students face. It’s all there. We don’t know how to talk about it. This film just showed us how to.
There was approximately a 3 minute standing ovation at the end of the film, followed by a Q&A session. In it, someone asked the filmmaker about how personal the subject was, and how he could keep filming while everything was so close, especially since his own brother was severely hurt. The filmmaker said that whether we like it or not, when we hold a camera, it will create a barrier. That’s the price one has to pay for the story. You’re in it, you’re affected by it, but you’re still separated by that invisible inch.
Abhay Kumar is that filmmaker, and he stayed in the hostel of that college for two whole years, filming as much as he could. He and his partner in crime (his own words, not mine), Archana Phadke then spent another year finding the needle in the haystack, and all the other needles too, in order to tell this hard hitting story. If there is one thing, and absolutely one thing I can learn from this, it’s “Get a camera and go make a fucking movie. It takes a lot of effort, but what’s stopping you?”
Abhay, you’re honestly one of the best filmmakers out there at the moment. I haven’t made a single piece of cinema, I don’t know how it’s done, I’m no authority. But films mean a lot to me, you’ve just made it mean more.
Thank you so much.
– Achyuth Sankar
(PS – You can watch Abhay’s shorts here (Just That Sort Of A Day) and here (Life Is A Beach)
(Born in Trivandrum and having spent his last 8 years in Bombay, Achyuth discovered his love for cinema here, thanks to affordable unlimited internet plans. His pass times are blowing up all his savings on purchasing Blu Rays, going for a morning show at some PVR, or eating good food and having a cold Bud. He moonlights (or rather, daylights) as a final year Engineering student, with a severe love for Harley Davidson motorcycles. He fell in love with movies after watching Good Will Hunting. The only thing he loves as much as cinema is his Labrador, Cindy)