“Who heals the healers?” reads a scribble on the wall of the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS). Superficially, everyone has the freedom to shape his or her own life. Unfortunately, however, the reality is not that ideal; individuals are instead coerced by society to conform to a standardized lifestyle without complete freedom. The film Placebo (2014) accurately portrays the lives of those who suffer at the hands of their social environment, simultaneously asking the audience “Are you also living the same life?”
Placebo, a documentary directed by Indian film director Abhay Kumar, introduces the lives of several students inside AIIMS, a prestigious pre-med institution in India. Initially, the film was relatively unknown because it was created through individual infiltration without any interference by commercial enterprise. Nonetheless, it soon became renowned for its acute criticism of the excessive uniformity of contemporary society. As a result, it was nominated as the Best Film at the 2015 Cleveland International Film Festival, and received the Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Educational Broadcasting System International Documentary Festival.
Because this film is a documentary, it has an interesting story behind its creation. Surprisingly, the entire process was technically illegal since it was not officially permitted by the school administration. In an interview with firstpost.com, Kumar explained that he had to intentionally postpone the release until the graduation of his interviewees to prevent any unfair punishment from the school. Kumar also had to overcome practical limitations to get this movie off the ground. Since he is an independent filmmaker, he had to rely on crowd-funding in order to receive sufficient financial backing.
While AIIMS at first seems to be a perfect organization full of prodigies, Kumar attempts to reveal the dark reality underneath its positive reputation. After witnessing several occurrences of self-injury and suicide on campus, he was determined to analyze the mentality of the students suffering from isolation and despair. Consequently, the film consists of his interviews with several students about their viewpoints and values. Through a discussion of their lives and emotions, the students’ colorless pursuit of fame and money in a barren society where individuality is discouraged becomes obvious.
▲ Poster of Placebo. Provided by thequint.com
The film reveals how society creates and enforces a standardized lifestyle centered on materialism. Some responses that the interviewees provide when Kumar asks about their dreams are “My dream is to become an elite, and that is it,” and “I want to become a doctor because my parents want me to do so.” Due to this uniform attitude, no one cares if a fellow student suddenly commits suicide, and personal interaction between students is uncommon in AIIMS.
“The way others are thinking exactly shapes what is inside my brain,” confesses one of the interviewees. The process of students being dominated by identical thoughts and losing their identity, sometimes leading to suicide, is specifically shown in the film. It is true that individuals are not completely free from responsibility because the social atmosphere originates from an accumulation of individuals’ thoughts. Nonetheless, Kumar clearly demonstrates the harms of excessive social uniformity. He also suggests a direction that people should pursue by showing a group of students rally against school administration for its negligence with regards to student lives.
Kumar employs fascinating symbolism to emphasize the way people in modern society are living without any self-identity. He draws a comparison between the students and the mice that are used for experiments. In the opening scene, he repeatedly intercuts two scenes respectively showing the students and mice. In these scenes, viewers can recognize the parallelism between the students left in despair and the mice that are struggling to survive the experiments. By associating humans with mice that are forced to obey identical directions, Kumar effectively conveys his criticism to the audience.
Another creative technique Kumar utilizes is the non-chronological arrangement of scenes. The indication of the time elapsed since the first day of shooting whenever a new scene begins makes viewers think that the scenes will be shown in chronological order. However, as the film proceeds, viewers are unable to discover such order among the dates. Despite this, the story makes sense, making it difficult to notice without scrutiny. This implies that there were no changes on campus during the time the film was shot, making the passage of time meaningless. Therefore, Kumar deliberately arranges the scenes in a random order to emphasize that the vicious cycle of isolation continued without resolution.
▲ Director Abhay Kumar. Provided by movielala.com
Through the utilization of documentary format, this film reveals reality without any exaggeration. As Kumar explains to one of the students before the interview, “What is going on is what you see.” This method enables an accurate portrayal of college life and a profound analysis of the students’ mentality through the interviews. Because this film attempts to unveil abstract problems regarding the social atmosphere, this direct method effectively delivers Kumar’s thesis. Through the straightforward disclosure of truth, viewers can easily sympathize with reality without any misinterpretation.
The effectiveness of the documentary format can be recognized when Kumar, the director, is shown becoming assimilated into the atmosphere of AIIMS. In an interview with a student called K, K confesses to Kumar that, “I do not even know who you are, seriously.” K continues, “I do not know who I am. How should I know who you are?”
Kumar and his interviewees thus also become the victims of isolation at AIIMS. They continuously experience the loss of individuality and interpersonal relationships. The frank display of short but stark interviews highlights the seriousness of the negative atmosphere at AIIMS, where students lack humanity.
Korean society also suffers from the same problem seen in Indian society and portrayed by this film. Because educational background is an important criterion of evaluation, everyone lives standardized lives, aspiring to attain academic achievements instead of pursuing their own dreams. Therefore, Kumar’s desire to get more people to pursue their own lives and care about others applies to Koreans as well. This film deserves more attention because it will initiate discourse that may lead to the reform of Korean society by allowing viewers to recognize the miserable reality.