n 2011, filmmaker Abhay Kumar visited his brother who was a student at an
institution in Delhi.
During his visit.
Kumar’s brother Sahil
got engaged in an argument with some other
students and, quite by
accident smashed his
arm through a glass
As Sahil was recovering — first in the hospital and then at their
family home in
Chandigarh — Kumar
stayed back and began
to document the lives of
students in this education institution.
moving documentary Placebo examines all
that is wrong with India’s elite education
system where bright young minds are
forced to live lives that please their parents
and the society. In the midst of this no one
seems to care about what the students
Placebo is an eye opener, a call for
action, or else, as Kumar suggests, things
will become even worse.
Placebo has been making the rounds of
film festivals and recently it played at the
HotDocs in Toronto as part of the special
Indian films package.
What I understand from the film is that
you hadn’t gone to Delhi to make a documentary on the students of an educational
institution? Did the idea emerge after your
I was there when the accident happened. It was just a casual visit. This was
in 2011 and I was traveling with my previous short film (Just That Sort Of A Day).
It was the last year before my brother’s
final exams. So he invited me to come for
the students’ festival since he had time to
hang around. The accident happened on
the second day.
The idea to make the documentary and to
explore the lives of the students at this
institution came about after the accident?
Absolutely. It just didn’t make sense not
to look at what was happening. Most of
these students are supposed to represent
the best minds of the nation, but when you
meet them you realize they are anything
but that. I can’t stand on a higher ground
and pass judgment on them but they are
absolutely different than what we expect
them to be.
This accident was a personal thing for
our family and me. I realized that so many
of us are made to believe this is what you
are supposed to be. But you have no idea
what price is to be paid for reaching there,
the pressures the system puts on the
But you don’t doubt that they are the
brightest minds. The acceptance rate at
this institution is so low.
Yes, but there are issues. First of all of
what the society expects them to be. I was
out one day with my brother before the
accident and he met one of his school-
mates. When he saw my brother he folded
his hands since he knew my bother was
going to such a big school. When my
brother wears a t-shirt from the school
and he sits in a library in Chandigarh —
where I am from, people walk up to him
as if he is some sort of a higher being.
The students also start to believe in a
certain entitlement from the moment they
get the admission. They become the superstars in their cities. The society feeds them
so much. But in reality they feel let down.
These are kids whose social development
is awkward. They studied throughout their
teenage years. They are very driven individuals, but they do not have much
healthy interaction with their peers.
They are used to be being the best. But
suddenly when you are surrounded by all
the others who also think they are the
best, they feel their identity has been taken
away. That can leave you on a very shaky
This whole sense of isolation they feel is
what I wanted to explore.
Recently a 15-year-old son of one of
father’s colleagues hung himself with a dog
collar because he had failed in some basic
test. For me the death of one student is
enough. The breaking of one mind should
make us realize that there is a severe problem in our midst.
When I showed the film to my father —
The problem is not specific to the institu-
‘As parents we don’t want to see a film like
When I talked to the father of the kid
who committed suicide he said ‘Kissi ki
buri nazar lag gayee hogi (Someone must
have cast an evil eye on him).’
This problem of mental health is very
intangible in India. We just accept it.
tion that you focus on in the film?
No, it is not. When we show the film to
students, they say it can happen anywhere.
It’s about the lack of support when you
think that things are not going away. When
I was 16 and I was studying, I was caught in
a situation where I didn’t understand what
I was studying. You feel rotten about yourself and you can’t articulate it.
When I asked my brother to go for some
post-traumatic stress therapy after the
accident, he said he won’t do it. There is
stigma attached to it. But in the screenings
we have held outside India, the feedback
we have gotten is that it is okay to ask for
But in India people think you have to be
really raving mad to seek therapy.
Exactly and that is what we hope to
achieve with the film when we take it to
When I was going through the phase of
angst they told me to feel positive, but that
is the worst thing you can tell a kid.
There is also a student-administration
divide, where the authorities in schools do
not know what is happening on ground
level. They banned ragging — and I am
not for ragging — but it was a structure of
interaction. And the school authorities did
not replace it with anything else. Nobody
foresaw how isolated it would make new
students. Now the seniors are scared to
talk to the juniors because it can be misread. If one of them gets suspended, that
is death for them.
No one is going to walk to a therapist’s
office and say I am fucked up.
In the US students feel okay to say that.
We screened the film at Carnegie Melon
University in Pittsburgh and we found out
there is a lot more openness in discussing
these issues. But in India I would like a
situation where the administration and
students could talk. These are fragile
minds. They are only 18 when they join
the school. One of the characters in my
film comes from a village. He was the way
up for the whole village. For that dream to
be broken can be devastating for the entire
These problems occur in so many places.
Chetan Bhagat wrote the book that was
finally made into 3 Idiots.
Absolutely, it’s not about one institution.
My film is about how as a society we don’t
talk to each other. It’s about isolation the
students feel. School administrations can
change policies, but unless the child opens
To save India’s
With Placebo, he hopes to bridge the
parent-child & student-administration gap that
leaves the country’s best vulnerable,Abhay
Kumar tells Aseem Chhabra/India Abroad.
CINEMA WITH A SOUL/HOT DOCS
THE MAGAZINE M13
Inset: Filmmaker Abhay Kumar's Placebo examines all that is wrong with India's elite education system.