A few years ago, when my neighbourhood in the National Capital Region became infested with monkeys, the residents’ welfare association along with the civic authorities, decided to enlist captive langurs to drive them away. Then, when the Animal Welfare Board of India came down on this illegal langur deployment under the Wildlife Protection Act, a brilliant new plan was devised — a man who could voice the typical cry of the langur was made to stand in. We laughed at the inherent irony in this inversion of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution — man developing into an ape rather than the other way round.
However, Prateek Vats, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, saw a feature film in this unique but seemingly unfilmable idea. His début feature, Eeb Allay Ooo, is about a young migrant, Anjani, who lands a ‘government job’ in the Capital — that of mimicking langurs. The profoundly funny, yet deeply disturbing; meticulously researched but absurd take on the societal and human condition, premières in India this weekend in the India Gold section of the Mumbai Film Festival. It is a worthy follow-up to his much-celebrated début feature documentary, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings , that was given the special jury prize at the National Film Awards 2018. According to Vats, the job of the monkey-repeller, the whole farcical situation that builds around it and the film itself, are not as simple or funny as they may appear. “While outwardly a satire, I hope the film is true to the internal complexities.”
Comprising a cast and crew of largely his own batch-mates and friends, the indie had its world première last week at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival. It had also won the Facebook award in the Work In Progress lab at the Film Bazaar last year.
Keeping it real
Vats, who grew up in the North Campus and Civil Lines area, has had a first hand experience of the situation himself. Then, he read about the monkey repeller, Mahinder (appearing as himself in the film), who used to work in Sunehri Bagh. He met him along with his writer, art director and associate director, Shubham. And slowly the film began to take shape. “I was wondering whether to make a documentary or a mockumentary but, as we got into it, we decided to make it like an absurd fiction while keeping it very real, because only then would the absurdity work,” says Vats.
Spending a lot of time with Mahinder, roaming around with him, noting the daily cycle of the monkeys, how they act, react and interact also helped in being able to film them naturally. “There was a lot of waiting; it is like fishing… We wanted to personalise the monkey, not use a wide shot. We wanted to lens it in a certain way.”
It was also about getting a big dose of reality: talking to the people at New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), observing their structured system of working, doing legal research. “We were anchored in the real, but very open to things. We didn’t get too hassled if we didn’t get the shot we wanted. We were looking to see what we can get without disturbing the environment, because the moment that happens, everything begins to fall apart,” says Vats, whose ground rule was simple: “The film and the characters could not be smarter or more intelligent than the universe of the film itself. Otherwise, the film becomes conceptual, loses out on the human touch.”
Eeb Allay Ooo casts an eye on several issues without overemphasising any, nor getting didactic and righteous. How the monkey menace is as self-created (worshipping and feeding them as avatars of Hanuman) as is the job to deal with the nuisance. Humour, emotions and drama go hand in hand right till the end. There is something cheeky in the way Vats spells out the monkeys’ takeover of Rajpath, Nirman, Udyog and Vigyan Bhawan. Politics, nationalism, the eternal hope for achche din , religiosity, the talk of gods turning pests — all are integral in an organic, non-judgemental way to the story..
Many shades of Delhi
Vats wanted the film to have a working class feel, as he has always seen Delhi very differently from the way it is projected on screen — either as this ‘Punjabified Dilli ’ or Old Delhi.
Eeb Allay Ooo is about the class dynamics and divides, visible and invisible and what they do to a man. It’s about his frustrations, humiliation, how he gets shorn of his dignity, tries to rise above it with his creative ideas and inventive solutions only to be pulled down yet again. Ultimately, the story of man against the monkeys becomes all about man against man. Perhaps it’s man then who has been held captive all the while and being a monkey is far more liberating than being human.
Eeb Allay Ooo premières on October 19 at at the Mumbai Film Festival 2019