Independent filmmaker Prateek Vats is having quite the year. This month his film Eeb Allay Ooo! will be screened in the Panorama section at the prestigious Berlin International Film festival. The film had its world premiere at the Jio MAMI Film Festival With Star late last year where it won the Golden Gateway award for best film.
The film is an imaginative blend of fact and fiction. It follows the story of a migrant hired as a monkey repeller in Delhi – the only job he can get. Vats examines the issue of classism under the guise of humour. We're shown the worker's humiliating and often hilarious attempts at keeping the monkeys at bay.
Eeb Allay Ooo! marks Vats' second film after his debut in 2017 – A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, a documentary about an elderly ex-wrestler which went onto win a National Award in 2018.
Ahead of his Berlin travels, the filmmaker spoke to me about the unique concept of his film, the ongoing challenges of being an indie filmmaker and why cinema in India is like a family business.
What do you hope being selected at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival could do for the film?
It was very reassuring to be selected. As a filmmaker, you try out a few things and hope for the best. It being such a big festival, firstly it's the access to the audience and a new territory, whether it's in terms of sales and distribution opportunities or just exposure to more filmmakers from around the world. That's the best part of any festival.
It's such a specific and interesting concept for a film. Where did the idea come from?
From the world we live in, I think. That's really the starting point. I always knew about the job of monkey repellers in Delhi. But right now it's difficult to make sense of what's happening around us and using satire is just perfect, especially now. With satire you draw people in so they're enjoying the film with characters which seem relatable and then take them on a journey. That is the very core of the film – a person who's up against this big complicated system where there are no heroes or villains, there's just an invisible system.
People say Indian indies tend to fare far better overseas because they have more of a palette for independent cinema. Would you agree?
I thought so, but the kind of reception we're getting in India for this film has been really exciting and surprising and it gives us hope that that are some channels open for a film like this even here. It's good to know how people are responding to it and the kind of interest it's generating even in terms of sales and distribution is very encouraging.
You've said that while making this film 'we were anchored in the real, but very open to things. We didn't get too hassled if we didn't get the shot we wanted'. Is that not tough as a filmmaker?
I think it is, but it's a process where you have a destination and you're just figuring out how to get there. For us, while we were shooting, every step was in itself a destination. Every shot we got was the most important shot. Then you just see where you reach and figure out how you got there. Especially when you're shooting with animals and real locations, there are so many variables. Documentary filmmaking teaches you to work with those variables and that environment.
This film required something else because of the unpredictability of the monkeys and the madness around them.
Your last film, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings won a National Award. What kind of tangible impact does winning a National Award have for an independent filmmaker?
Any of these big things whether it's a National Award or Berlin is validation and helps you keep the faith that what you're doing is something. So they all help in keeping you going and maybe if you want to pitch another project somewhere down the line it may help. When I won it was a very big validation and it still had some credibility and dignity in those days.
Would you ever want to venture into bigger mainstream films?
I can't really say. I enjoy everything and it's too early to limit myself. I might as well try and do everything possible. As long as there's freedom to make what you want to make and you can give yourself time, I'm open to it.
You have to think of cinema in India as a family business where it all extends within the family. It's not systematic. We don't have industry standards and workflows and labour laws and insurance. None of those are really followed so why shouldn't I look at it as a family business?
Is it still as challenging to finance an indie film, or is it getting easier?
Now there are more possibilities, but that's only because it's cheaper to make films. But there's no system, it's all trial and error. You have to think of cinema in India as a family business where it all extends within the family. It's not systematic. We don't have industry standards and workflows and labour laws and insurance. None of those are really followed so why shouldn't I look at it as a family business?
Are you hopeful for the future of independent cinema in the country?
All the challenges that were there before are still very much there, let's not kid ourselves. It's only on the blood and sweat of the makers that this is running and it's a highly taxing and stressful space. How do you start? How do you sustain yourself during the making of the film? But there is hope because making films is getting cheaper and you do have the OTT platforms but there's a dangerous trend now where they're just becoming television or wanting to show Salman Khan films.
That was the logic given to us when multiplexes came, that they would have 5 different screens showing different kinds of films with regional films and documentaries and independent films. But it ended up being 14 shows of a big star film, so even that's gone. I don't know how the OTT business will figure itself out, but these are dangerous trends I feel. I think it'll be okay if you free it of the necessities of the mainstream grammar – the faces, the scripting etc, only then it'll reach its potential.