In one memorable promotional still for Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo!, his protagonist Anjani — in half-sweater, white sports shoes, scarf — is framed against the six-pointed star of the Jaipur column, and beyond it, Edwin Lutyens’ dome for the presidential palace, both made to appear more distant than they are by two infamous factors: Delhi’s February smog, and the gradient of Rajpath on Raisina Hill, once and forever home to troops of monkeys.
For Anjani, it is no pleasure stroll in the corridor of power. He is at work — one of several young migrant men who take the precarious (and dangerous) contract job of ensuring that the monkey menace in the country’s preeminent PIN code is under control.
British author Jan Morris wrote that the imperial capital in Delhi was built at a time when it was too late for arrogance but too soon for regrets. Vats’ film is about an India in the middle of sunning its arrogance while throwing a blue tarpaulin over any lingering feelings of remorse. Perhaps enthused by the topicality and thumping endorsements from directors like Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Vikramaditya Motwane, more than 1.5 lakh viewers watched Eeb… when it recently premiered — only for 24 hours — on YouTube as part of the We Are One Global Film Festival. We spoke to Vats following the screening. Edited excerpts:
What has the response been like? Has your phone been ringing off the hook?
Overwhelming — so nice to see it resonating with people for so many different reasons. You hope when you make a film that people can make their own meaning, you don’t want it to be didactic and restrict interpretations.
And the open ending of the film is helping with that?
Absolutely. There’s a fine line between ambiguity and confusion. So it helps that our ending is ambiguous and not confusing.
Do you like talking about your work? Or is it something you accept as part of the process of getting the word out.
I don’t like explaining but I like sharing what I feel about the process, how people are viewing it. As long as people feel something, I’m happy to talk about it. Kya lagaa rather than kaisa lagaa — that is what I like the conversation to be about.
The title is fitting because this is really a film of sound. What was the philosophy behind the sound design?
The sound designer Bigyna (Bhushan Dahal) and I are classmates from film school, so there was a great level of comfort. Because we were planning to shoot in real locations, we realised we couldn’t fish out the boom rod at any time. We planned it very carefully — how many lapel mics, how many boom mics, the camera’s unit direction, need for stereo recorders. A lot of thought went into it because these days, it’s not hard to get a shot, but to get the sound is almost impossible. The film is meant to make you feel like you are on location with the characters, and sound is a way to suggest that. It helps create that certain kind of psychological space. It also gives me the option of using very little music.
What is your relationship with Delhi like?
I see it as my first city, since I grew up there. It is home in a lot of ways. At the same time, I have a certain distance now because it has been a while since I left. My parents have also left. Yaar, I feel the city fundamentally changed around the time of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Suddenly, a lot of public spaces were taken over by the authorities. Cameras were installed and there were armed guards everywhere. At the time, the city displayed a very ugly side of itself. They picked up people and left them at the border. They erected metal sheets around the bastis. So you needed people to work but they shouldn’t be seen, much like it happens in West Asia. That left a lasting impact on Shubham (writer of the film).
Getting permission to shoot so extensively in the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) area would have been quite a nightmare?
Actually, because these are such important areas from a security perspective, there were processes in place to get permissions. But it is a whole gamut of things. Permission had to come from different places: the police, the Ministry of Home Affairs, North Block, South Block, Nirman Bhavan. And the real problem is not so much getting permission but actually shooting in these locations. You arrive all ready to shoot and you are told it is not possible that day because of some VIP movement, or a foreign leader is in town, or Parliament is in session.
How did you shoot during the Republic Day parade? That sequence is remarkable. Because we see Anjani watching those people in langur costumes on the Karnataka float and that inspires him to get a langur costume for himself to scare away the monkeys.
We knew that Republic Day had a significance to the kind of film we wanted to make — a full-blown military parade in an area with a monkey problem. You let accidents happen but you prepare for them. You pre-empt that there will be tanks, floats, people in Hanuman costumes, wildlife costumes. It is one thing for there to be a float with something interesting on it, something we can use to drive the narrative. But the other thing is capturing the shot — it needs to be in focus, the lens has to be right, you need to have counter-shots. That is the paradox of shooting fiction films — it makes you feel like you are in control. This idea of letting go of control is very unnerving, but till we do that, we won’t be able to get something truly magical.
What about the film’s influences? Was there something you were thinking about while scripting, while shooting?
A few things: there was the film called ID by Kamal K.M a few years ago, there was Ektara Collective’s Turup, Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilaane Le Jaa Riya Hoon, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. But mostly, the biggest influence has been trying to engage with the world around us. If that is not there, the film will splinter out. It will shoot away into space into this funny, dark, absurd kind of film.
And what’s next for the film?
There is interest from streaming platforms but I can’t say how it will go. We’ve had to quickly recalibrate a lot of stuff since all the festivals have been shut down due to COVID-19. So, along with the films that have been travelling with us, we’ve been thinking about how to go about it.
The interviewer, a lawyer by qualification and afternoon napper by inclination, is at home everywhere and nowhere.