Prateek Vats, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, made his feature film debut with Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019). The film narrates the plight of a young migrant, Anjani Prasad (Shardul Bharadwaj), who — due to the efforts of his brother-in-law — gets a contractual government job of mimicking langurs in Delhi, the capital of India. With an intense keenness towards humor, Eeb Allay Ooo! displays a derisible approach towards anti-establishment sentiments that resonates with the plight of individuals trapped within the norms of the societal and human condition.
Eeb Allay Ooo! has won the Golden Gateway Award as well as the Special Jury Mention in the India Gold section of the 2019 Mumbai Film Festival. The film was also selected in the competitive section of the Pingyao Film Festival, and was also a part of the Panorama Section at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Vats has twice received the National Film Award, from the President of India, for the 2010 short film Kal,15 August, Dukaan Band Rahegi and the 2017 documentary A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
Dipankar Sarkar: Do you think that studying in a film school and making student films has helped you develop a sensibility towards filmmaking?
Prateek Vats: Of course. That’s why one goes to a film school. A place like Film and Television Institute of India, Pune helps you formulate a broader worldview by giving exposure to so many different kinds of cinema. It helped me develop a more sensory approach to the craft rather than an intellectual approach. Most importantly, it helped us learn from each other’s mistakes and pushed us to make films without the fear of failure.
DS: Your documentary A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings is a subtle depiction of the former bodybuilder Manohar Aich, once a man with a robust physique but now daunted by vagaries of aging. Did making the documentary help you hone your skill for your debut feature film Eeb Allay Ooo!?
PV: Every film you make helps you with your next one. Personally, making the film with Manohar Aich and his family helped me to let go of the anxiety of control while filming Eeb Allay Ooo! It taught me the value of engaging with my confusions while making a film rather than running away from them in the hope of pursuing a monolithic “clarity.” It was a lesson in the treatment of drama and character study.
DS: How did the premise of making a film on a monkey repeller occur to you?
PV: A few years back, I found out about this newly constituted job of a “monkey repeller” in New Delhi. It was the latest in a series of steps taken by the civic authorities to deal with the monkeys who were wreaking havoc in our highest offices. The monkeys had been emboldened by the recent ban on the use of captive langurs — their natural enemy. Young men were being hired on a contract basis to mimic the sounds of an aggressive langur to keep the hordes of rhesus monkeys away from the most important offices of our democracy. The inherent absurdity of this situation drew me in.
DS: Share your collaborative process with your co-writer Shubham during the scripting stage.
PV: It is difficult to layout the exact process because we have known each other for more than 15 years now and have closely seen each other’s work over this time. So, there was a great amount of comfort from the beginning. While writing the script, we wanted to create new images and see relationships through a fresh lens. We decided to approach the scenes through psychological space so that the audience doesn’t necessarily see the reality, but they feel the reality of that image. It was a very open process where ideas followed freely. It started with meeting Mahinder Nath and learning more about his job, monkeys in Central Delhi and also people who work in these areas. Shubham and I spent nearly two months in that area, sometimes with Mahinder and sometimes without him. The whole process was to try and see this city through Mahinder’s perspective. As Shubham puts it — “We also tried to see through monkey’s perspectives, but we failed in that.”
DS: Why did you decide to cast a real-life monkey chaser, Mahinder Nath, who plays a version of himself in the film?
PV: Mahinder, for all practical purposes ,is the starting point of this film. It was a news article about him which drew me in initially. He comes from a community of people who, over generations, have worked with langurs. When we met him, he was one of the 25 odd persons who were hired contractually to work as a “monkey repeller in and around the central Delhi area. At the end of the first meeting, I was convinced that he had to be in the film. There were many reasons — his sound, his personality and comfort in front of a camera; his understanding of the system, his experience, his sense of humor and awareness of the world both around and beyond himself. In due course, Mahinder became our script consultant in addition to helping Shubham and me understand the behavior and routines of the various troupes of monkeys in the high-security area. He was our window for understanding this world better. He helped us see this universe through the perspective of a working-class person — something we don’t associate with the power center of Indian democracy.
DS: Did you conduct any acting workshop before the shooting of the film?
PV: No. Shardul Bharadwaj, who played the role of Anjani, the protagonist of the film, spent time with Mahinder Nath instead.
DS: Shooting at one of the busiest locations of the country’s capital with the monkeys as a character must have been a challenging undertaking. How did you and your team strategize for the task?
PV: Every shooting location has its unique challenges — be it the posh areas of central Delhi or unregulated colonies like the Sanjay Amar colony where we shot the sequences of the family. One has to constantly think on the feet and adapt.
As far as the North Block/Rajpath area in Delhi is concerned, it was the perfect backdrop for the satire that we were trying to weave. Hence it became paramount that the film was shot in the seat of power that it is situating itself in. However, Shubham and I wanted to look at this part of Delhi from a migrant working class gaze, being both familiar and unique at the same time. We wanted the film to have a certain “matter of fact” about it and transform the physical spaces into cinematic and psychological landscapes. Only shooting permits cannot ensure that. One has to move beyond the ideas that have come to define film shootings. It wasn’t an intrusive shoot where we were invading our locations, but rather a shoot where we learned to negotiate consent and carefully consider the space and time we were shooting at. Actors, rather than just concentrating on the written scene and dialogues, would try and match the energy of their surroundings and be a part of the overall mise-en-scène. This approach came with its own set of surprises and shocks. An accident would suddenly add value to the frame, and sometimes it just destroyed the whole planned scene. It was a nerve-wracking experience that made us think on our feet and constantly question our ways. I think the collective experience of making documentary films between [cinematographer] Saumyananda Sahi and [sound recordist and designer] Bigyna and myself helped us in finding solutions on an everyday basis. We would trace the monkeys as they slipped between the cracks in the security of the national capital’s power center. In that sense, we became what we were shooting.
DS: In one particular scene, while a group of monkey propellers are building a makeshift cage for the monkeys, the protagonist accidentally gets trapped. What was your intention behind the scene?
PV: Traditionally, this work has been community-specific, which has now been opened up like any other contractual job, and technically requires no specifically defined skills. Like any place, the contractors are always on the lookout for somebody willing to do the job for lesser money. This creates insecurity of work amongst the workers. There is underlying friction, which keeps boiling over once in a while. In this context, we wanted to have a scene, which portrays violence in a form, which can be denied. It is a kind of ragging which is intended to humiliate rather than physically hurt. Also, it’s a kind of violence which springs up out of nowhere and without warning. Within this lens, the idea was to give an expression rather than an explanation of Anjani’s state of mind.
DS: As the protagonist of the film finds that all his methods and efforts to ward off the monkeys have exhausted, he dons a black langur costume to frighten the mammals. Is this a kind of satire or a vitriolic comment on human society?
PV: It is liberation for me as a moment of empowerment for our protagonist, which can only be achieved by becoming a larger monkey in the world of the film.
DS: What is the significance of the gun in the narrative that stirs the hornet’s nest once it is brought into the house by the protagonist’s brother-in-law?
PV: I think it will signify different things for different viewers. It can be viewed as power being entrusted to someone who is not willing to exercise it. Or, it can be viewed as a yardstick for how much people are willing to bend and accommodate to hang on to their precarious jobs. For us, it was about looking at a gun differently from what we have become used to in films. For us, it was never a tool of power, but one of fear for the ones who possess it like a heavy burden, which doesn’t need to be fired for it to cause harm.
DS: What was your political approach in exploring the instability and insecurity caused by the contract labor economy within the milieu of the film?
PV: In some ways, the job of a monkey repeller is unique. But in many other ways, it is like any other contractual job where employees are devoid of any agency. Our focus was to look at how the inbuilt corruption of the contractual labor system played out in the context of this particular job and to then situate it in the world around us — a world which is increasingly becoming hard to make sense of and where all of us have been reduced to being involuntary participants in the monumental farce which is unfolding around us; a world where being a monkey is far more liberating than being human. A filmmaker or an artist cannot provide a solution to today’s political problems but surely can identify them. This is the first and most important step, to make your audience aware of systemic errors in any system. Satire allows you to do that. It is powerful but yet welcoming.
The tragedy of migrant workers is not new. We have been witnessing it for years but refuse to acknowledge it. The chaos caused by the pandemic has exposed the fault lines in the system. In that sense, the pandemic has not caused the tragedy, it has revealed an existing one. The images of women, men and children walking back to their homes after being abandoned by the cities, which are built on their labor, will haunt us forever. It is not difficult to picture our characters amongst them. I hope the film can help us in viewing this monumental tragedy as a logical conclusion of the system rather than a result of the system collapsing.
DS: Does the ending of the film signify that the morale of the protagonist has been pulverized because of the discord he faces in the society?
PV: Again, as I said before, I would like to know what it signifies to different people. I think being interpreted in different ways is the strength of any work of art rather than a weakness. Ambiguity is different from confusion. An end like this can mean many things — “Has Anjani gone mad? Has everyone else around him gone mad? Is he defeated? Is he empowered? Is he dangerous now? Is it an impression of hope? Or an expression of hopelessness? To me, any of these (and more) are valid interpretations. The question is not really what it means but rather what one feels at the end of it.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.