Four years ago, Abhay Kumar infiltrated the confines of one of the toughest undergrad medical schools in the world (AIIMS, New Delhi). He lived, breathed and followed four students around the grim corridors for a year – and explored their minds, dreams, nightmares, hopes, ambitions and their fragile relationship with the crushing pressure around them.
He then teamed up with collaborator Archana Phadke, and together, they sculpted out an important social document of our times. After premiering at prestigious documentary festivals around the globe, they will now bring PLACEBO to India – back home, to Mumbai, and to the festival where they first won major awards for their shorts.
We speak to them about their journey:
Four years, Placebo has taken from start to finish? I remember meeting you in Delhi just after you finished shooting, wondering about the task of editing ahead. Did you know what lay ahead? Surely, such a long journey would raise expectations?
Abhay: Well, yes. Three years of making it and one year of taking it around the world before we bring it to India. I remember when we met, I was hoping to look for an editor who could deal with the material we had. And after moving to bombay for the post-production, we really did look for one. However, there were two factors which were not allowing this to happen. Firstly, we had no money to pay anyone. Plus two years of full-time filming meant the range of the content to familiarise oneself with would take a lot of time and effort from an outsider.
When you started following students around the campus, did you know exactly what you wanted to make? Did you think it’d bring you here, right now, today?
Abhay: When I started following the students, I wasn’t even sure I’m making a film. Part of the reason why I undertook this project was that I was dealing with a very tough personal situation, and getting behind the camera was, in a way, therapeutic. It brought a layer of separation between the reality we were confronted with, and the one I was simultaneously shaping up via the camera. I became confident that maybe there is a film inside somewhere based on Archana’s reaction to the raw material. She was fascinated by how these lives were unfolding and urged me to carry on. I remember telling Archana that we can finish this film start to finish in a year-and-a-half tops. That is how she got suckered into this project (and so did many others). There is a point in the film where a character asks me, ‘Have you found a story yet? Have you even found a part of it?” And I have no answer.
Archana: I clearly remember the first time I saw the footage.
K’s eyes looked straight at me. He was sitting in a small room, the paint peeling on the back wall…he had a Rubik’s cube in one hand….
I could hear Abhay’s voice from behind the camera while K adjusted things on his study table.
Abhay asked him “Who are you?”
K said he was a student, an intern… He rambled on about very formal, specific details – about the five years he had spent in the institute….
Abhay’s voice said “These are all bookish answers… Are you tense? Don’t be… I am not here to judge you… I am just a ghost….”
K listened intently as Abhay said, “I want to find out this unit that is you….”
That’s when it happened…the change on K’s face…he stared into the camera…
K said “Erase it all… everything…erase it.”
“Why?” Abhay asked.
K smiled and said, “Let’s open up.”
That was my hook into the film: A moment when suddenly he decided to break the wall and bare himself to this instrument and the ghost…I knew i had to be a part of this.
The post production has taken 3 years. Why? And what would you have done differently, if you had to do it all over again?
Abhay: Actually, the post took one and a half years in all seriousness, even though we could probably add six months which were overlapped with the last phase of shooting. Again, there were two reasons why it took so long: No funds and the constantly shape shifting material owing to an utterly free-flowing form of shooting. Interviews were never setup, shooting was undercover. There were no rules except one: keep the project from collapsing onto itself. I practically became a part of their lives. And I knew a moment will come when the bubble will burst and suddenly people will realise ‘What the hell is he doing here?’
In the luxury of hindsight, everything is illuminated. There are many things which could have been done differently, but we did it the one way we knew- brute force.
How important has feedback and outside voices been to your documentary? After a while, it’s impossible to be objective as a filmmaker. At every stage, you must have been confident – how and when did you decide where to stop?
Abhay: If it were upto me, the film would have probably gone on for longer. Archana gave me an ultimatum. I could see everyone around us crumbling with pressure. Relationships were getting tense. We were snapping at each other. Then I knew it’s time. Things are what they are and practically speaking we could not sustain without funds anymore.
Definitely having shot and edited the film, objectivity for me was out of the window. Archana was in charge of that. But after so long a time of living with the footage, I think even she got infected. So we approached Deepa Bhatia. She was the one who gave us so much confidence when we were totally down and out. She came onboard as consulting editor and was instrumental in setting up our Finnish co-production.
Archana: I think, especially so with documentaries, that a 100 films can be possible with the same footage. And one does lose objectivity. I always like to go back to my first instinct. I think that’s the most precious and most truthful. And it needs to be protected. For me, it was always about bringing in material that made me connect and feel with what was happening. There was a point, through all the versions of the film, where I saw the film and I knew that this was just right. One can keep arranging and rearranging things all the time. But again we live in the “real world” where logistics exist. So we stopped when we knew we had made the best version of the film.
I have to ask – the students you followed…are they fine with being shown on screens across the world? How reluctant were they – considering the impact it could have on their careers?
Abhay: There were two of them who are rebels, so they did not care much. However, the other two were much more sensitive to how they are portrayed. Hence, all the secrecy around the film with respect to any teaser/trailers. Protecting their identities till the right time was my responsibility and now the time has come when we open this journey to all the people who need to see it.
At what moment did you decide to make this a ‘hybrid’ documentary? Tell us about this term. Is it an artistic choice or simply a device to fill in the gaps and arrest attention?
Abhay: I believe the term ‘hybrid’, when it comes to documentaries, is redundant now. Technically speaking, it’s simply a tool you choose to tell the story like choosing film stock/digital. My natural instinct while making films is to bend the medium. That’s where Archana steps in. I remember I wanted to treat portions of the doc like a sitcom. Then, she made this face which was like, “Umm. Yeah right.” So I knew this won’t fly. We have an unwritten rule. If an idea/cut appeals to me, Archana and Shane (our longtime composer-cum-collaborator), then we are sure it’s the right approach.
As per this particular story being hybrid, we waited till the need for it presented itself. The first cut we made was ‘hybrid-free’. Something was missing. And then I jumped in and announced ‘this is what we are going to do’. And the long dark night began. (PS: This is where VFX pro Vijesh Rajan got conned into the project). I pitched him a parallel animated short embedded in the doc narrative, set on a space station, which was written by one of the characters I was following. We were all super kicked about it. But then as the narrative started forming we knew that it is already too dense. Any further exploration in tricky quarters might lead to ‘Indulgence’ – a word I hate, and Archana’s favourite word to throw at me. I believe Vijesh still hasn’t forgiven me for not letting him go to space. Here I would also like to mention the stellar work by our animators Troy and Rajesh, who had day jobs and worked nights to finish our work. Their work, especially, has received worldwide appreciation.
Archana: I think every college has that one person. A person that goes unnoticed, unseen…almost like they don’t exist. While filming, one such character became very important to this particular story. Somehow this character changed the reality of everyone involved. It became a responsibility as filmmakers to somehow portray the face of a student hiding behind the walls of these esteemed corridors. For me, that’s where the hybrid nature of the film became important: To use fictional themes and form to tell a bigger truth.
Almost every Indian artist has had to fight a lot of factors to be what they are – most of all, the education and cultural system here, both of which are always co-related. Have you always felt strongly about this system? Why did you choose a medical college?
Abhay: ‘Placebo’ is an extremely personal film for me – on multiple accounts. From 16-18, I was possibly depressed because I could not cope up with what I was studying. The worst thing about being depressed is that one has no vocabulary to express it in terms which can convey the idea without either sounding mad or frivolous. At least not in the year 2000, not in Chandigarh. Since then, I had always questioned people’s blind faith in institutions and the prestige attached to getting into a particular college. I could not fathom that how, since the age of 10, children knew that they wanted to go to IIT and AIIMS. It was unbelievable. Placebo was my chance to explore the story on the other side of the fence.
A medical college presents obvious dilemmas – at the young age of 17, these kids are exposed to pain and suffering. It is unlike any other graduation experience in any other field. Logically, one would think these guys must be so sorted. But what i witnessed was mind boggling.
You’ve gone around the world with Placebo. What have the reactions been like? How difficult is the road ahead in India, considering its status as a documentary? 2014 was sort of a pathbreaking year for Indian documentaries…
Abhay: It has been unbelievable. On a certain level, it has been surreal because we are bringing the film to India at the end of the festival journey. It’s like showing it to strangers before your own family. But we had our reasons. We have pretty much stretched our sanity coming to this point. For the film to have a road in India, somebody will have to back it. We saw some fabulous docus in 2014. But there was a common thread in their fantastic execution and cinematic language – all of them were funded by film funds. Trouble with Placebo is, we ran a failed crowdfunding campaign. Then we pumped in our own money, got some bit funding here and there, but it was nowhere near what was needed.
Both me and Archana are not producers, so that aspect was and continues to be a nightmare. But the good thing was – we were proud of what we were making, and that saw us through. We have come to a point where we have done all we could. Now let’s see what path the film paves for itself.
Archana has been your collaborator for years. Tell us about this partnership. Would Placebo and your short JTSOAD been possible without her?
Abhay: I’m sure it would have been possible, only they would be shittier versions. To be serious, she is the order and structure in our team. I am too chaotic in everything I do, which gives me certain freedoms, but they have to be met with stability.
Archana: The first time I really realised that I could make a film by myself was one monsoon day back in college. I saw this film called “The Lodge”. It was a two-minute film made by my then fellow student, Abhay. I was so inspired. I decided to buy my own laptop and use the little camera I already had to make something of my own. Abhay helped me download my first editing software and taught me all the basic commands. I think as artists we are constantly looking for some inspiration. Abhay’s relationship with this art form, his constant attempt and experiment with finding different versions of the truth have always made me feel and experience an unknown feeling.
My attempt is always to look for the most basic emotion and connect with it. Abhay makes the same emotion something else. I can’t explain it as I don’t understand it. That way I think we bring this balance. I think it’s very very difficult to find someone to collaborate with where the fit is so perfect.
Abhay : I’m really sinking my teeth into horror. With all the darkness that came with Placebo, I need a genre outlet to push it all out.
Archana: I was so broke!!! I had to do a lot of money jobs I hate! After finishing Placebo I have been working on my first fiction script titled “Dhoor”… And lately, I want to learn carpentry.
Is it feasible to be an independent filmmaker in India lately? Financially, it’s quite a problem. How did you manage, and how do you plan to?
Abhay: Its funny how at awkward dinner table conversations, when I tell people I’m a film maker (which I don’t anymore), this is the same question I’m asked. I’ve been a shameless parasite and have been functioning on people’s kindness. After finishing Placebo, I moved back to my parent’s house in Chandigarh because I was broke and in debt (those things have still not changed). I have to struggle a lot in my head as to the reason and need to make films. So I have no idea how things will work out. They have brought me to this point somehow. In today’s time, to be able to make a film one wants to me is a luxury, and I’m trying to feel gratitude and not let myself become cynical.