Abhay Kumar’s feature length directorial debut Placebo, a fiercely inventive documentary, had its world premiere last month at the IDFA in Amsterdam. What makes the project especially significant from a funding point of view is the director raised much of the financing through ‘crowd funding’. A trailer released in February 2013 helped to attract attention and as many as 82 companies have supported the project in various capacities.
I haven’t had a chance to see any of Abhay Kumar’s earlier short films, for which he has received many awards at film festivals, but Placebo is another noteworthy debut that we can add to the expanding catalogue of new wave Hindie cinema. Placebo is very ambitious for a first feature film and although at times Kumar crams his documentary with a plethora of ideas he still succeeds in creating something very special. By entering a closed world, Kumar takes his camera into one of the most privileged educational institutions training some of the best minds in India and lifts the lid on a world characterised by insurmountable pressure. Much of the documentary draws its energy from an experimental playing of the form, freely mixing interviews, some terrific animation sequences, memories and even science fiction/fact to conjure up a potent feeling of dread that pervades the student campus. By adopting a stream of consciousness fits the unpredictability of the various students who emerge in many ways as unreliable narrators.
An emotional intimacy comes from the ethical questions posed by director Abhay Kumar’s exploitation of his brother’s fragile state who becomes very much a test subject for the camera, cataloging the trauma and aftermath of his moment of madness. In doing so Kumar constantly turns the camera on himself, with his subjects openly criticising him for the way he hides behind the camera, using it to mask his own sense of isolation and discontent. Such self reflexivity seems almost necessary to remind us that any barriers between the documentary filmmaker and subject are non existent. Although Kumar is not interested in developing linearity, instead breaking and smashing our attempts to forge a narrative, one very significant social thematic does emerge, that of institutional neglect. The outrage voiced by the students on the campus, calling for the resignation of the principal, is the documentary at its most political, criticising the pastoral failings of such a prestigious institution in dealing with the ongoing problems of bullying, depression and castesim.
POSTSCRIPT: Director Abhay Kumar contacted me in regards to ‘factual errors’ so I have amended the review accordingly to reflect the truth concerning the financing of the film. My original review said Anurag Kashyap was involved in the project when in fact he was not:
“Anurag Kashyap has not been creatively involved in the film and AKFPL became defunct and Anurag merged with Phantom (who also have nothing to do with our film). Guneet was supposed to help us with finances but they did not have funds and we did not have time so that deal never happened. If you saw the film you would have noted that we were supported by the Finnish Film Foundation.” -Abhay Kumar, 20 Jan 2015
Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s entry for the Prabhat Film Company says the following:
‘It had the largest stage floor in India and an art department under Fattelal regarded as the country’s finest. Like New Theatres, Prabhat had many stars on the payroll, well equipped sound and editing departments and its own laboratory…Prabhat pioneered new popular forms such as the Bhakti biographical or Saint films by Damle-Fattelal and socials by Shantaram.’
A few years back Everest, an Indian DVD label, released a 10 disc box set celebrating the output of the Prabhat film company. Such a release certainly helped to bring the pioneering influence of the Prabhat brand of cinema back into scholary perspective. I think I’ve said this many times before so I will say it again; the historiography of Indian cinema is in a state of flux, it is still being written since so much has still be rediscovered, archived and studied. This new documentary by Jessica Sadana and Samarth Dixit is a welcome addition to an emerging engagement with India’s filmic past and takes an affectionate look at the history of the Prabhat film company and its later acquirement by the government to serve as the site for what is now The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. One can even visit the Prabhat museum housed on the site that exhibits some of the famous props and equipment from the studio. I felt the documentary was too focused on the present and could have arguably done with more of a concerted focus on the founding members of Prabhat.
Nonetheless, interviews are conducted with people who did once work for Prabhat, constructing a narrative that relies on memory yet offering some terrific anecdotes including the memorable one about Damle (a founding member) reincarnated as a snake who wanders the grounds of the old studio. One interview in particular with a lighting technician tells of a heartbreaking story in which the camera used to film Sant Tukaram (dir. Govind Damle, 1936) was later sold for virtually nothing and ended up as a chopping board for onions! Prabhat relied greatly on the commercial and creative talents of Shantaram and his sudden departure at the end of the 1940s left a major vacuum that would be a fatal blow for a company that had the potential to keep growing as a major Indian film studio. Sadly this dream did not come to fruition, but the legacy of Prabhat was undeniably influential in shaping both the devotional and social film genres while offering a platform for the careers of many actors, directors and technicians. Overall, this is still an illuminating documentary.
If Putty Hill is part of the Mumblecore movement then director Matthew Porterfield’s style is altogether more distinct, unique and neo realist. In many ways, Porterfield’s unfiltered and largely observational approach bears more resemblance to the films of Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt than Mumblecore regulars like Aaron Katz. Although Putty Hill is Porterfield’s second film, it was embraced as if it was his directorial debut. In fact, Porterfield directed a film titled Hamilton in 2006, which clearly and rightfully positions him amongst contemporaries such as Bahrani and Reichardt. Hamilton was shot on location in Baltimore, a working class district that also provides the backdrop to Putty Hill. Released in 2010, I’m not sure if Putty Hill has been given a release in the UK and if it did then it must have been a limited distribution deal aimed at a specialised audience. Porterfield dispenses altogether with narrative and by utilising the perfunctory idea of a death that effects an enclosed community, means that characters and their behaviour within the given social milieu become the real source of audience engagement. Porterfield seems to be testing the audience throughout by repeatedly blurring the line between documentary and fiction. It is not clear if the people we meet are friends of the director or if they are merely performing and recalling lines from a script. Perhaps then given the way Porterfield dissolves the barrier between documentary and fiction, the film transforms into something more organic. Such belief in the notion that characters and stories come naturally out of the landscape and milieu have connections to a neo realist aesthetic and ideology. Ever since Gus Van Sant transported the cinema of Hungarian Bela Tarr into his slow cinema trilogy including the landmark Elephant, the use of selective focus has risen to become a defining cinematographic feature of many American independent films. Porterfield employs such a technique, sparingly though, to train his camera on the edges of reality. And it is a working class reality that Porterfield feels comfortable with especially the lives of seemingly anaesthetised youth cults such as skaters. Putty Hill is a poetic work that at its most simplistic shows us the wasted lives and broken dreams which continue to haunt the ordinary.
Here is the trailer to the film: (IMDB lists the film as having been released in June of last year in the UK)