Review: 'Placebo' finds no easy antidote at medical school Special

Posted Apr 30, 2015 by Michael Thomas
Mixing animation and live-action, 'Placebo' is an undercover documentary that tries to, with some success, bring light to a troubling student culture at India's most prestigious medical school.
Scene from  Placebo
Scene from 'Placebo'
Courtesy Hot Docs
Placebo introduces the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) by comparing it to similar prestigious schools in the States. MIT has an acceptance rate of 9 percent; Harvard, 7 percent; AIIMS, less than 0.1 percent.
What follows are a few story beginnings — a vague mention of a student suicide and the introduction of director Abhay Kumar, who decides he'll start filming at AIIMS in New Delhi after his brother, Sahil, severely injures his arm after smashing glass. These threads, strangely, seem almost forgotten for much of the film's first half as Kumar talks with a few of his subjects — students at AIIMS.
Though the first half feels aimless, there a few interesting moments, particularly when Kumar asks the students why they want to become doctors. Of the three shown answering the questions, only one genuinely seems to want to become one. One talks about becoming a doctor to "pay back" his parents for all their help, while another says "I respect the word 'doctor' more than me as a doctor."
In the second half, the film begins to take on a surreal tone as Kumar finally delves into the meat of what he's trying to get at. There are at first vague mentions to a faceless man wandering the halls, and later, even talk of a demon. These surreal elements come to life with animation, which was used to better illustrate the thoughts Kumar was processing throughout.
When Sahil's arm is no better three months into filming, Sahil tells Kumar what the audience might be thinking: that he was so absorbed in the filming he wasn't there for his brother. It's painful when Sahil tells Kumar he no longer knows or is easily able to trust him.
But the fireworks truly begin after the family drama, when an AIIMS student commits suicide. Students mobilize in protest of the AIIMS director, whom the deceased student tried four times to arrange a meeting with. It delves into the deepest question — what is it about this school, and others like it, that cause such high stress? Surely something must be wrong if AIIMS sees at least one student suicide a year among its 70 students admitted every 12 months.
There are no easy answers, of course, though the film could have perhaps done a little more to demonstrate the seemingly oppressive campus culture that drives students to want to kill themselves. It would have also been nice to see some female perspectives in the film, however that was beyond Kumar's control. As producer Archana Phadke explained in a Q&A after a Thursday screening at the Hot Docs film festival, this was because Kumar was only allowed in the men's' quarters. To this day, the AIIMS administration doesn't know Placebo was filmed there.
Though the documentary could have been shorter by a few dozen minutes, it does highlight a problem that is certainly not unique to India, and is the first step to starting a conversation about what can be done to prevent it.
Placebo will have one final Toronto screening on Friday, May 1. To see Digital Journal's coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs festival, click here.