Placebo is typical of documentaries shot over a very long time: the story of its making is as fascinating as the film itself.

In 2011, Abhay Kumar smuggled himself and his handycam into the hostel of a medical college. He lived there undetected until the end of 2013 and conducted extensive interviews with four students, one of whom was his brother.

Meanwhile, Placebo began to accumulate its own mythology. The speculation got louder after February 2013, when Kumar posted an enigmatic trailer online in an attempt to crowdsource funds even while staying incognito on campus. Which is the “prestigious medical college” being talked about? What horrors await viewers of the completed film? Why does the trailer open with an animated sequence? Is Placebo a documentary or a mock documentary that is staged while claiming to be real?

All these questions will be answered when Placebo is screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (October 29-November 5). Kumar asked that the name of the medical institution be kept a secret until the festival screening, and not only because he fears legal action. Placebo highlights the travails of student life at one of India’s top-league colleges and is a visual diary of stress, loneliness, self-loathing, anxiety and apathy, but that experience is echoed across any institution that offers prestige along with degrees, the 30-year-old director said.

“The film is about what kids talk about when adults leave the room,” said the director, who lives in Chandigarh. “It talks about academic pressure, peer pressure, ragging. The students in the film were the ones willing to open up. The college is a centre of excellence and a cutthroat place, and kids who get in there are made to believe that failure is not an option. Many people pull through, but some don’t.”

Placebo describes itself as hybrid in form: it uses elements from documentary and fiction and its tone shifts several times, from intimately observational to metaphysical before settling into social justice mode. The 96-minute film opens with images of mice being strung from wires for an experiment. It then goes into a fly-on-the-wall style, featuring the after-class ramblings of the medical students. One of them articulates the central paradox of his life: when he was younger, slimmer and fitter, he did not have access to a swimming pool. He can now splash about whenever he likes at his college pool, but he doesn’t have the figure to carry off his swimming trunks.

The subjects appear to be as self-absorbed as its filmmaker. “I have a faint memory of why I came here in the first place,” Kumar says in his voiceover. “This is a story I will tell myself many times over to remind myself that it has happened.”

The material gets darker, sadder and nihilistic. The young men swear and swagger a bit before the camera, but they appear to be lost. They have reached the peak of academic excellence, only to find that there is nowhere to go from there.

“There was more graphic material, but it was cut out to distil a sense of what needed to be said rather than to be shocking for the sake of it,” Kumar said.

The ruminations are offset by animated sequences about mental and physical isolation that are as much a reflection on the students as on the filmmaker. A blurred and shaky image of an animated male figure standing in the corridors of the hostel begins to appear and recurs – he is meant to represent one of the suicidal boarders. The account is foreboding, accentuated by the intimate camerawork and the alienating architecture of the college campus. Not surprisingly, Kumar is fascinated with the science fiction and horror genres, and hopes to make a scary movie soon.

The man who could not stop filming

The filmmaker was partly inspired by the controversial American documentary Catfish, which similarly uses a fly-on-the-wall technique to record the online and offline encounters between one of its filmmakers and a girl he befriends through Facebook. Catfish’s makers hunt down the girl’s family, only to find a chasm of truth between social networking profiles and the people who create these profiles.

Catfish deals with the slipperiness of truth and identity, and is characterised by a flip tone that lets up only in the closing moments. Placebo too could have been an edgy exploration of youthful angst, but real-life events overtook the film. It was originally meant to be shot over a few months. “The film was supposed to be an insider look at hostel life at one of the more prominent colleges in the country,” Archana Phadke said. “You think the students’ lives are made. We thought we would make a simple film on these guys living there until the suicides happened.”

But a series of suicides in the institution, attributed to the generic culprit of depression, prompted Kumar to open out the documentary into a larger interrogation of a campus culture that allows young and bright sparks to be brutally extinguished. “Suicide was always hanging around the room – people kept talking about in one way or the other, and there was an undercurrent of violence,” Kumar said. “The film changed every six to seven months. These seemingly random conversations show you the undercurrent of something wrong being here.”

The filmmaker could have stayed on campus for much longer (the fact that he was never caught proves the communication gap between the college administration and students), but external pressure forced him to finally extricate himself. “The film became a monster, a nightmare,” said Kumar. “I was 24 when I started making it. We had between 800 and 900 hours of tape, and we could not find an editor to go through so much footage, so we did it ourselves. I had a gun to my head because I was fucking with everybody’s happiness. I forgot why I went there. When you start living somebody else’s life, it becomes addictive. I was told that if I didn’t stop shooting, I would lose it.”

Phadke watched from afar as Kumar became “one of the characters”, and the use of animation is also meant to explore his headspace, she said. “What kept us going was the sense that the film was constantly being made.”

Kumar and Phadke met at a media course at the Xavier Institute of Communication. The two have collaborated on several short films produced by their company, Storyteller Ink, including Just That Sort of Day, which won a National Award for best narration/voiceover in 2011.

‘Just That Sort of Day.’

Storyteller Ink’s productions won at the Dimensions short film contest at the Mumbai Film Festival three years in a row – “the prize money was my annual income”, Kumar jokes – and the director was in the process of writing the script for a horror movie when his brother got involved in a random act of violence during a student festival at his college. Kumar set out to investigate, and stayed on for months.

The financial risks of making Placebo were as great as being caught during the shoot. Kumar and Phadke could not raise money in advance, given the secretive nature of the project. Even the crowdsourcing teaser left its actual subject and location extremely vague to protect the identities of the students. One of them is still at the institution, and will complete his course at the end of the year.

“My hands were tied all the time,” Kumar said. “After we released the teaser, we raised hardly any money – we got only Rs 3 lakh, which is nothing. I had to take loans to finish the project, and I have to figure out how to repay them. But there was no other way I could have made the film.”

Finnish producers Helsinki Filmi and Atlantic Films partly came to the rescue when Deepa Bhatia, consulting editor on the project, put Kumar and Phadke in touch with them. Placebo has been shown only once before, at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in 2014, and the Mumbai Film Festival screening marks its Indian premiere. Placebo will be shown at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 5-8) after Mumbai.

The clandestine nature of Placebo makes it difficult to be screened publically. Among the few places where Kumar has privately screened the film is the KEM Hospital in Mumbai, which also runs the Seth GS Medical College. “We showed the film to the faculty at KEM Hospital in Mumbai, and they felt it was an invaluable training tool, since teachers have no idea what students are feeling,” Kumar said. “We have no vocabulary to address mental health. We will be creating an outreach campaign to talk about student suicide, and we want to show the documentary in colleges.”

Kumar also wants to create an interactive web-based platform to explore the film’s themes in more interesting ways.”The experience I wanted to create is still limited, and we want better animation and more elaborate sequences,” he said.

The obstacles Kumar expects in India might surpass the troubles he took to make and complete Placebo. Even cutting a trailer for Jio MAMI has proved difficult. “I can’t open those files again, I can’t do it anymore,” Kumar said.