It’s all monkey business. Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo! imaginatively melds fact and fiction, laughter and anger, to examine how some of us are more equal than others, and how the gatekeepers are sometimes as oppressed by the system as the ones they want to keep out.
“I was interested in exploring the hierarchy this sets up,” says Vats, 35. He spoke about the making of his first feature film after its world premiere at the just-concluded Pingyao International Film Festival. It had its India outing at the ongoing Jio MAMI festival in Mumbai. Edited excerpts:
How did the idea come to you?
I grew up in Delhi, so I’m very familiar with the city’s so-called monkey problem. About four-five years back, I read an article about how langurs had been placed under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), and that they couldn’t be used anymore to chase away the monkeys of Raisina Hill and surrounding areas. And how young people were being hired on a contract basis to imitate langur sounds to scare away the monkeys from the government complexes.
The film is told through the story of a migrant in Delhi, and the only job he can get. For me, the contractual nature of the job, and the impact on these people, who live in an unregulated colony, is very important. It was also very important that the protagonist was not a pitiable character, a bechara. He is an akkhad, entitled type, who feels chasing monkeys is beneath him, even if he has no life skills or education, like so many young men.
And then, to have to be so helpless...
I’m interested in exploring violence which is unannounced, violence which can be denied, and how human beings can be degraded. How people can say, ‘oh, be a sport, it was just a joke.’ The kind of violence we are used to seeing on screen leads to othering. We tell ourselves, we don’t do such things, so it is nothing to do with us, but bullying, ragging, molestation we do, and they are done to us.
Any plans for the next?
I don’t know how we will make political films in the current times. It’s not so much the censorship from the government, it is from the studios, production houses, ourselves. We have to be smart enough to use subversion, not confrontation. And have a sense of humour.
Cinema is a great way to do that, isn’t it? Once you’ve seen it, it can’t be unseen.
My whole thing is: let’s frame the right questions instead of straining to get the answers. If you ask the right questions, you will get the right answers. If you go looking for answers, you will get only whataboutery.
We end the film with a feeling. You don’t know what the feeling is, it is unnerving. Is it a celebration? It is carnivalesque? You really don’t know whether to enjoy it or be scared. This is the feeling I get when I go to these processions, there is Hanumanji, as well as chants of Bharat Mata ki Jai... if you ask why, we are told, ‘we are serving you food, too’. If you feed us, you can do anything?
So, aadmi hai bandar (man is monkey)?
Yes, exactly. Which universe are you placing this in? A universe where people are working on contracts, on hire-and-fire, without security, here today, gone tomorrow. How do you juggle this with the increasing militarisation and decimation of public spaces? It’s been one of my preoccupations to question why certain violent conflicts don’t end, and why some do. Something we should all be thinking about, right now, especially.