27 May 2022 05:13 AM
UMA DA CUNHA | 22 FEBRUARY, 2020
In Conversation with Filmmaker Prateek Vat
Prateek Vat's engaging and informative documentary, ‘Eeb Allay Ooo!’, India’s entry in the Panorama section of the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival taking place over February 20 to March 1, 2020. The film presents an engaging interface with a shiftless young man and his discomfort with the only job he can find in India’s capital city – that of a monkey repellant.
Uma da Cunha talks to the director on the making of ‘Eeb Allay Ooo!’ and its European world premiere.
What drew you to filmmaking? Are you content with making shorts and docs or do you plan on being a filmmaker of feature films?
Difficult to pinpoint actually. But I guess the fact that one could create an entire universe while making a film was something very intriguing. It still excites me very much.
I studied at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. It gave me exposure to a variety of films and thought processes. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to learn collectively and learn from each other’s experiences and mistakes and to make films without the fear of failure. All films are exciting, it’s just about which ones do we chose to make. I intend to continue making all kinds.
Your first film - the documentary ‘A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings’ presents the story of an extraordinary man. How did you find the protagonist and what did making of this film mean to you?
I had known about Manohar Aich for some time before deciding to make the film. Mr Aich, 4 feet 11 inches tall, was given the name ‘Pocket Hercules’. He won the Mr. Universe title in the 1952 NABBA Universe Championships – the first Indian to bag this honour. My immediate trigger to make the film was the media interest around the time he turned 100 years of age. It still took me and Mehul, the cinematographer, a whole year to start filming.
The entire process from getting funding to the time of the film’s first screening took about four years. It was the most testing time and at times felt like it would go on forever. Nothing before had demanded this kind of patience. It taught me to value my confusions and engage with them rather than brushing them aside.
Once we decided to do away with the evidential burden associated with a documentary film, the film started to come together and take shape. It was quite special for me – learning to let go of the illusion and anxiety of being in control. What started of as a biopic eventually became a portrait – and thankfully so!
What was the most satisfying aspect was that the film was able to evoke Manohar Aich for the viewer without really illustrating him and his family members. The relationship between Mr. Aich and his daughter, Bani Banerjee, also became a discussion point. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t screened too much. I would love to put it out to the audience more and hear from them.
Coming to your second film, Eeb Allay Ooo! which you have produced as well as directed, how did you hit upon its main protagonist? Is this his real role in life? He is so true to character, so authentic ….
Mahinder Nath, on whom the film is based, is in many ways the starting point of the film. Years back I had read a feature story on him and his job of keeping monkeys at bay in the heart of Delhi. He was the first person we met when Shubham our script consultant, our window into this universe and I started working on the film. Mahinder was one among 25 odd young men who were contracted to do this work . He belongs to a community who for long have worked with Langurs to keep the monkeys away.
Having found the subject – was the funding difficult?
Well, it wasn’t easy; I’ll just put it that way. It was mainly due to Producer Shwetaabh Singh’s efforts that the project took off. He raised the required finances on his own account and we both pitched in with our personal resources as well. It took us around two years from the time the script was started till the time the film was put out for screening.
The film moves so effortlessly from the personal life of the man to the job that he was forced to take on which he found quite abhorrent. What were the problems, the hurdles, – and also – the things that went well and kept you involved and elated about making this film. Is this a real situation or one that you have created? So much of the film is in outdoors - in Delhi - which could not have been easy at all.
This job is very real. We are not so creative. It has taken a lot of very esteemed people heading departments and ministries to come up with this – it was simply beyond us to come up with this premise, I think.
However, as unique as this job may seem, in many ways it is similar to any job, which employs contractual labour. The inherent insecurity and the inbuilt corruption of the contract labour system are all pervasive. The approach was to always keep this lens of contract labor while looking at our characters and trying to understand how the power equations play out on a day to day a basis.
The excitement of working with monkeys kept us on our feet everyday! It kept the mood of the crew up – as if we were all playing a team sport rather than shooting a film. The documentary approach of the shoot mixed with heavy drama in the writing meant that the communication was never stopping between the crew. There was a lot of talking, lot of laughter and a lot of sleepless nights. The unpredictability of the shoot was most exciting.
I’m a great believer in the value of shooting fiction in public spaces. It was paramount that the film was shot in the seat of power where it is set. Only permissions 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 learnt to negotiate consent and carefully consider the space and time we were shooting. It was a nerve-wracking experience that made us think on our feet and constantly question our ways. But this was only possible because Shwetaabh, Neel (Line Producer) and Abhishek (First AD) ensured that we got the required permissions.
The main character steals the film. His inherent disconnect with coping with life and trying to make something of himself is both touching and at times, irritating. He is such a loser, but a likeable one on screen. How did you find this actor? How did you capture his evasiveness, his negativeness, and yet make him appealing, somebody we can identify with?
I have known Shardul (the actor who plays the central character, Anjani) for many years I have seen him on stage and conducted a workshop while he was a student at the Film Institute. There was a fear of the character being seen as the victim. We didn’t want that. It would have made the script monotonous and the film tedious. We wanted our protagonist to be a function of the universe that we see in the film.
I feel that Shardul in the main role has given a special performance. He was put in awkward, sometimes dangerously unpredictable, situations. But he managed to hold his own. His performance ensures that the character evokes sympathy without the script giving him the impetus. The result is a rare achievement - a performer internalizing not only the script but also the craft being used to make the film. We were very demanding; he mostly lived up to them!
Was your subject willing and amenable to how you presented him as a character on screen?
We did not see the people we were filming as “subjects”. They were people helping us make the film as collaborators. Be it script, or location recce or learning to work with monkeys – Mahinder was the central pillar. Given his busy schedule, we were the ones who had to be amenable. Unfortunately, Mahinder has not been keeping well for the past many months. He has not attended any of the screenings.
Your film in a subtle way shows the contradiction of worshipping a monkey when it comes to our inherited teachings. Did you intend to touch on this dichotomy?
The film is a response to the world around us – a world where lumpen religiosity is not just tolerated but actively encouraged. It was a very conscious choice to weave the religious element surrounding the monkeys along with the nuisance and the terror created by them.
The domestic circumstances of the main character is also amusing – how the family accepts this strange man and his even stranger occupation. How did you hit upon his family situation and the woman in his life – she is quite unusual and so likeable.
The family situation of our protagonist was extremely important for us from the onset. For us, the family is the anchor that holds the film together. Without the family, it would just be a film about an odd job – which we were weary of from the start. Again, the fact that all family members are contractual employees in their respective line of work is no coincidence. Naina’s character – Kumudh – is a contractual nurse - a character we do not see often in our films. Naina, with her performance, breaks stereotypes associated with a working woman who lives in a slum. The relationship between Anjani and Kumudh is delicate and fragile. It is an unusual love story, which makes it likeable.
Is it a fact that a monkey repeller is a paid job, even by the government?
Yes. very much so, even today. Young men are hired through a contactor to serve as monkey repellers around the various offices in central Delhi. Like other contractual employment there is no security of job or health benefits even though they are working for all practical purposes for the government. It’s the same old story, which is happening around government establishments – security guards, sanitation workers, drivers and other semi and unskilled labor – all working for the government but not recognized by them as employees. At the end of the day, they are hired by a contractor.
How has the response been to your film abroad? We know our dual feelings about a monkey?
The monkey king is a popular character in Chinese mythology. When the film screened there, we were very surprised by the connect it had with the viewers. All three screenings were full and scores of people came up to talk to us. However, apart from mythology I feel there are some universal traits associated with a monkey. Their evolutionary proximity to humans makes monkeys the perfect beings as carriers of satire, which again, is a universal concept across literature in the world.
What questions have you had to field on your film’s man versus monkey theme?
The constant tongue in cheek question is, “who is the monkey here?” It is good to know that the film makes the audiences come out with a question rather than discuss didactic answers. One of the reviews described it as an absurd world where being a monkey is far more liberating than being human.
The film has been well received at festivals. How many has it gone to ?
The film opened in the International Competition section of the Pingyao International Film Festival, 2019 as the only Indian film in the section. Immediately after, the film had it's India Premiere at the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star, where it was awarded the Golden Gateway Award (Best Indian Film) as well as the Young Critic's Award, along with a Special Mention for the lead actor of the film. It played as the opening film at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, and was shown as part of the New Talent Award section at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Berlinale 2020 marks the European premiere of the film screening in their Panorama section. There have been no commercial screenings as yet.
Has the short/documentary scene in India improved in terms of making money for the director and other investors?
There are more films being made, that’s for sure. But I still feel that we owe that to the democratization of the medium and the blood and sweat of the makers. I can’t really say if short films are making money for the investors or producers or directors. Documentary films have a much more defined “industry/market”, with their own circle of grants, fundings, co-productions, sales agents etc. Maybe the gestation period is longer, but there is still a blueprint for the entire process. Shorts, I’m not quite sure. But again, I am not the best person to comment on this.
What next, in terms of what you have in mind for yourself as a career?
My next film is in its early stages of scripting. There is still a lot of work to be done before I can really talk about it. I just hope that I am able to make more and more films within a sustainable economic model, which can afford me maximum creative freedom and independence of thought.
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