In Eeb Allay Ooo!, Prateek Vats uses monkeys as metaphor to satirise blind faith and superstition in modern India
Ten years ago, Delhi-6 had an imaginary 'kaala bandar' as a symbol of communal bias. But in Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo!, monkeys pose a very real and urgent threat to society.
National Award-winning filmmaker Prateek Vats' debut feature Eeb Allay Ooo! begins with keen close-up shots of humans making loud sounds, traditionally used for chasing away monkeys. "Eeb!", "Allay!", and "Ooo!" in succession sound like a war cry. And then peppered all across the film are close-ups of monkeys, either feigning indifference or threatening to retaliate with an advance.
Clearly, monkeys are in no mood to leave, despite all the aggressive demonstrations. This exchange becomes more layered when the metaphors of both the parties are taken into account. Monkeys at Raisina Hill, New Delhi stand for politicians who take charge of the respective offices situated in the same area every five years. And the humans, the contractual labour assigned the task of repelling monkeys from the high-stakes area, presumably represent watchdogs of the government, or any pressure group like the media, civil society or the opposition.
Vats' choice of focal point in the film is undoubtedly pressing, particularly now when India has witnessed the unfortunate migrant crisis across the country, triggered by the lockdown put in place to combat the coronavirus outbreak over the past few months. The words 'metaphor' and 'subtext' widely made their way into most of the reviews after Eeb Allay Ooo! was screened at We Are One, a recent global virtual film festival. The same observations were underlined in the first reactions to the film when it premiered at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival last year, where it won the Golden Gateway Award in the India Gold category.
However, Vats insists that the metaphors were an afterthought. "We never thought of monkeys as metaphors. As far as we were concerned, we were always dealing with facts — fact of monkeys taking over Raisina Hill, or the fact of exploitative contractual labour. Sometimes we want to so desperately look at things/elements as metaphors that we forget that those elements themselves are real and factual. We wanted to engage with facts, and not metaphors," the director says in an exclusive interaction.
The metaphor of monkeys was a major takeaway despite it not being the director's focus as he claims. This writer believes this discrepancy can be attributed to how the opening minutes of Eeb Allay Ooo! play out. Hindi news channels, in their signature pulpy tone, narrate how the monkeys have become a menace in Delhi because they are being worshiped by the Hindu masses, as a symbol of Lord Hanuman.
Any WhatsApp uncle would tell you that was always the case. But it is common knowledge that in the past six years, every Hindu symbol has been deified to such an extent that it has stirred a wave of fearlessness and invincibility among the stakeholders. Blind faith is no longer restricted to religious practices and superstitious activities, but has extended to political figures in flesh-and-blood, with a face and an ideology. While a devotee is often warned about not pampering the monkeys, they continue to do so and threaten harm against those who suggest otherwise.
Given the sociopolitical climate, the 'subtext' would have organically seeped into the narrative of the film. "Monkeys, being evolutionarily so close to us, became perfect vehicles for satire. They are unpredictable, mischievous, and potentially violent and aggressive. The canvas of Delhi as a migrant city, and also a power centre, provided us the base for looking at what they are, and within that, we hoped to transcend beyond their factual existence. But metaphors, not really," says Vats.
Monkeys have not featured as a popular metaphor in Hindi cinema so far, as they are mostly reduced to tools of comic relief, in films ranging from Indra Kumar's 1997 comedy Ishq to his 2007 blockbuster Double Dhamaal.
The only instance this writer can remotely recall, where the monkey was used as a metaphor, was in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's 2009 film Delhi-6.
Set in Old Delhi, the ensemble film revolved around Roshan Mehra (Abhishek Bachchan), a US-returned Indian, who accompanies his grandmother Annapurna (Waheeda Rehman) on a homecoming trip. Much to his surprise, he discovered that the Hindus and Muslims, residing peacefully in each other's neighbourhood, often blame a kaala bandar (black monkey) for causing unrest, and eventually communal disharmony, in the community.
A chain of events leads to many in the community believing the kaala bandar is actually Roshan in disguise, thanks to his outsider's gaze. They also attribute it to the fact that his father married a Muslim woman (Tanvi Azmi), and was presumably ostracised from society for his 'sin'. Leaders of the local Hindu sect turn against Roshan to an extent that the mob gets violent towards the end of the film.
In a hilarious yet disturbing scene, when Annapurna is being rushed to the hospital after she falls unconscious, a huge gathering of people obstructs their path. The crowd is shown to be busy worshiping a pregnant cow in the middle of the road. As Roshan tries to clear the way, he sees his ailing grandmother struggle out of the cycle-rickshaw to seek bovine blessings as well.
Roshan eventually concludes that the kaala bandar is actually an imaginary creature conjured to mask the communal bias in every person. It is merely a fictitious manifestation of people's deep-rooted belief in superstition and religious supremacy.
Vats, however, mentions that the idea to include politics germinated in his mind years before the current dispensation came to power. "The actions of the concerned governments during the Commonwealth Games (in New Delhi, 2010), the constant struggle and insecurity of contractual staff at FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune) and other government institutions, and militant nationalism piggybacking on religious lumpen-ism came first. These gave perspective to the monkeys, who in turn, became the lens to look back at these elements."
In general, superstitions are perpetuated by several rituals, which often end up feeding the fire of communal acrimony. While the kaala bandar was merely an imaginary symbol of that blind faith, it has taken a tangible form in Eeb Allay Ooo! — much like communal disharmony has assumed a shape in our country today. It has a face; people no longer worship only pregnant cows, but their uncompromising beliefs are now driven by a cult figure.
However, Vats has not really offered a solution to the 'monkey menace' in his film, even though it serves as a cautionary tale. When the odds are stacked against the protagonist, an inexperienced monkey-repeller, he buys a black langur costume to scare away the little beasts. He even puts pictures of the langur across the neighbourhood, including on the gates of government buildings. His actions get him into trouble, as the pictures of a langur reflect rather poorly on the state of the Indian government, especially ahead of the annual Republic Day Parade that invites global attention.
Clearly, you cannot become a beast higher-up in the food chain to ward off the existing threat. But that is what electoral politics has come to. When hate prevails because of widespread blind faith, one cannot help but be a part of this one-up-monkey-ship.
As the decade between Delhi-6 and Eeb Allay Ooo! shows, the threat has evolved from bias to blind faith. Ten years later, the metaphor may change, but politics and religion will always be embedded in an aam aadmi's fight against poverty and unemployment. "Maybe both (blind faith in religion and political leaders) are responsible. Blind faith, coupled with the rise of militant nationalism based on faith and religion, where people are not important, has played a big role in worsening the (migrant) crisis. Also, (there is) the fact that workers' protection laws are being constantly diluted, hence robbing them of any agency and security," says Vats.
Disclaimer: Before agreeing to give inputs, Prateek Vats said his answers will not be the "gospel truths". The filmmaker is aware that opinions and comments, like the dynamic subject of his film, are not immune to evolution.
Eeb Allay Ooo! is now available in Indian theatres.
All images from YouTube.
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