Eeb Allay Ooo! movie review: Prateek Vats’ feature length fiction debut is truly representative of Delhi
Eeb Allay Ooo! thrives due to the strength of its central performance and the restrained grandeur of its ideas.
This review was first published when Eeb Allay Ooo! premiered at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival 2019, where it won the Golden Gateway award in the India Gold category. It is being republished in view of Eeb Allay Ooo! releasing in Indian theatres on 18 December.
Eeb Allay Ooo!, Prateek Vats’ feature length fiction debut, brims with metaphor. It is a film truly representative of Delhi, the city it is set in, a metropolis that lends itself generously to metaphor that its teeming millions are variously nourished and undermined by.
Vats chooses a young Bihari migrant for protagonist. Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) possesses a head full of dreams and a reluctant attitude towards the job that is thrust upon him: scaring monkeys away from the buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi, the centre of political power. He lives with his elder sister and brother-in-law on the outskirts of the city. Every day, he wends his way through the lanes of the slum and treks across railway tracks to resume sparring with the unruly gang of monkeys. In addition to the uneasy and strange nature of his job and the even stranger bureaucratic rules he runs into, he is subject to ridicule and practical jokes from his co-workers.
Anjani is rightfully afraid of the monkeys and no amount of encouragement from Mahinder (Mahinder Nath), a veteran at the job, seems to be making him comfortable. Mahinder tries to teach him the guttural sounds (eeb, allay, and ooo) that will help him get better at his job. Anjani fails to master the technique. But it brings them closer as friends. He comes up with a series of original ideas to turn the monkeys away. From hanging images of langurs to using a slingshot, he tries everything. But it only serves to sour the relationship with his boss because all his ideas are turned down one by one. They are considered too dangerous or simply bureaucratically unacceptable. Anjani becomes lonelier and more indignant with each disappointment. Once he accepts the hopelessness of his station, the film takes a darker turn as he embraces the only thing that gives him a semblance of power.
Vats traces the arc of a marginalised individual who is pushed further back into the margins with the passage of time. Anjani lacks the skill set to find gainful employment. Despite his distrust of the menial nature of his job, he is willing to engage with its absurdity and find novel ideas to excel at it. None of that matters to the bosses who are content with the way things have been done forever. Defeated and dismayed, he comes back at the end of day to his sister’s tiny hovel where his anger and indignation is shot down for showing unwelcome signs of privileged pride. Everybody expects him to accept his lot in life and get on with things. But even when he is just one among the crowd thronging to the Republic Day parade, Anjani finds inspiration from the mundane to get better at his job.
The premise itself is fertile ground for sowing metaphors into the heart of the film. But Vats never lets that get in the way of telling an interesting story. There are moments where you want him to show fewer shots of trains passing by. But more often than not the storytelling lends itself to metaphor instead of it being the other way round. It is clear that the film will lose a lot of its value without its metaphorical richness. The filmmaker realises that. Even when Anjani is visited upon by one misfortune after another, the metaphors maintain an ominous presence, like the gun his brother-in-law is forced to keep in the house and whose existence can be ignored only to the family’s own peril.
Eeb Allay Ooo is first and foremost a character study. It is the story of a young man trying to make a living in a city where the odds are stacked against him.
Like so many of us, he dislikes his job. He is not particularly good at it. But he wants to do well while he is there. His job involves handling creatures that are revered and also considered a nuisance. So there is a risk involved, about which he will learn the hard way. Most of all, he will learn that even in a job that requires interaction with animals, his fate will be subject to the vagaries of human nature, individual and collective.
Watching Anjani’s story unfold, the viewer will experience the push and pull of religion, class and cultural divides, the vice-like grip of poverty, the resulting anomie, anger, and indignation, and the welcome release of friendship and love. In between, you will meet a pregnant housewife obsessed with cleanliness while living in a slum, a security guard’s queasy relationship with a gun, and the friction between Anjani and a man stubbornly refusing to stop feeding monkeys.
While the story is intriguing in and of itself, Eeb Allay Ooo! thrives due to the strength of its central performance and the restrained grandeur of its ideas. As long as the sub-plots are servicing the story instead of simply feeding the subtext, the film proceeds self-assuredly. Saumyananda Sahi’s creation of Delhi on the screen is keenly felt and faithful.
Vats’ ambitious first feature is a human comedy about a man struggling to formulate a notion of self in a climate perilously attuned to absorbing it within the normative social being. Pushed to the margins by the ferocious pace of uneven development and social upheaval, the protagonist discovers he is not all that different from his simian foes.
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