I happened to be in touch with Prateek Vats, for a brief period, in 2015—before he had made his first film, which is not Eeb Allay Ooo!, but a documentary on Manohar Aich, the centenarian bodybuilder from Bengal. The students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) had gone on a strike after the dubious appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a television actor, as its chairman, and the creation of an FTII society comprising members with equally dubious credentials, and Vats, an alumni, was at the forefront of the resistance.
Although triggered by the new appointments, the larger fight was for autonomy of India’s educational institutions, resisting ideological imposition, and demanding transparency in the selection process. And it wasn’t just about one government. Vats was leading the charge when he was a student, in 2010, after a Hewitt report proposed that India’s premier film institute be ‘upgraded’ to a profit-making venture. The BJP government had decided to take it to another level.
Vats became my point of contact when I was covering the protests for the newspaper I was working at the time, sending me updates on new developments, whether it was a press conference at the Mumbai Press Club, where filmmakers returned their National awards—including Vats, for his short film Kal, 15 August, Dukaan Bandh Rahegi (2008)—or a protest march in Carter Road. The strike went on for 139 days, ending in October, with the students vowing to keep at it even as they went back to their courses.
A month later, the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), that’s annually held in Goa, cancelled its student section. In protest, two ex-students, Shubham and Kislay, stood during the opening ceremony outside the official venue with placards, shouting slogans. They were arrested, detained at an undisclosed location, their phones and wallets taken away from them and released later. ‘The students were trying to tarnish India’s image on an international platform’, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, then the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, was quoted saying. ‘Isn’t not allowing students to participate in the film festival tarnishing India’s image?’ the students reasoned back. Not only were their films not shown at IFFI, they were denied entry into the festival.
These events are chronicled in Retracing Freedom: Goa Chapter, a 22 minute documentary, put together by Vats, on the parallel film festival that the students and alumni came up with in response. The two-day programme showed the films, some of them made during and inspired by the strike, hosted discussions, music performances and a press conference, despite efforts of state-sponsored sabotage—a police inspector and 30 constables disrupted the event on its first day, and the District Magistrate of North Goa sent notification that only films with Censor certificates will be allowed to screen.
Vats was at the centre of the action, trying to devise new methods of protesting, along with Shubham, one of the ex-students who was arrested. How were they to continue protesting when there were orders against marching or gathering, and when holding a placard and shouting slogans—not illegal by any measure—had led to the harassment in the hands of the police? CrPC Section 144 was imposed around Inox Kala Academy, the main venue, and a list of names were handed to the security to bar them from entering.
Vats was at the centre of the action, trying to devise new methods of protesting, along with Shubham, one of the ex-students who was arrested…Shardul Bharadwaj, who was an acting student at FTII at the time, was sent dressed up in red trousers and a white shirt, a mock film reel and a hat, his face painted in mock tears.
But surely they couldn’t stop a clown from entertaining the audience outside the venue. Shardul Bharadwaj, who was an acting student at FTII at the time, was sent dressed up in red trousers and a white shirt, a mock film reel and a hat, his face painted in mock tears. He wore a a big red ball for a nose and held a bunch of balloons. In front of a makeshift stall that lamented the death of cinema, he covertly handed out mini pamphlets that had the words ‘Save #FTII: Protest is On’ printed on them. A banner read ‘John, Ghatak, Tarkovsky. We shall fight. We shall win!’. As though a street performer passing coded messages to his audience, he said to unsuspecting kids and accompanying parents ‘Kya mangta hai aap logo ko? Dictatorship mangta hai?’
Much has happened since. The FTII fiasco was one of the first assaults on the arts by the current regime—and the resistance by the students and alumni, one of the first of the student led movements. The film school, set up in 1961 by the Government of India, is transforming into an institute that will favour only those who can afford it. Vats recalls that week in Goa, and the film that came out of it, as the groundwork for Eeb Allay Ooo!, describing it, half-jokingly, as a “product of the strike”. If the performance outside the venue was a creative way to show dissent, Vats and co.—Shubham (co-writer), Bharadwaj (lead actor), Saumyananda Sahi (cinematographer) and Tanushree Das (editor), all of whom were a part of the rebel film festival—have been able to convert the same tactics into making a feature film.
It’s unlikely that Eeb Allay Ooo!, which released on Netflix this week, will incur the wrath of right wing groups, like say, Tandav, because it doesn’t play it straight. It’s cloaked in a premise that might have been a Bollywood film with a ‘quirky’ one liner, or a documentary: the protagonist, Anjani Prasad, has the oddest of government jobs—he is a monkey repeller in Lutyen’s Delhi, India’s ‘power corridor’. But it also has the incendiary quality of a molotov cocktail, as in when Anjani, dressed up in a langur costume — not unlike his clown act at IFFI — starts entertaining people at the Republic day parade, with shards of electronic music filling the soundtrack; or when we are told that a mob has taken Mahender, his colleague; or the ending (more on that later). Eeb Allay Ooo! plays like a commentary on the state of the nation, heading in unpredictable directions, as we see Anjani’s dehumanising journey from man to monkey. “When people ask me, I say that I made the film because I cannot make sense of what is happening round me,” he says.
Whether it’s showing dissent or making a political film, Vats is wary of the pitfalls of following a set pattern, which, he says can become “tedious” and “didactic”. He takes the example of the viral video of the Hong Kong protests, where you see the police tear gassing students, and one of them, neutralising it with liquid nitrogen. “It’s like this is what happens when chemistry students protest. They don’t have to sing Faiz. They may not be interested in it. But does that delegitimatise their protest, or make them less serious?… We can not only confront, we can subvert as well, and still make something interesting and not compromise… Because yeh sikhaya hai FTII, that constantly try and invent.”
Vats has been attending IFFI since 2006, and saw it first hand how the festival slowly changed into a “government function”. When the 2015 incident happened, he and others were driven by an urge to “reclaim” what is essentially a public space… This attitude informs Eeb Allay Ooo!, where the Raisina Hill provides the surreal location for the film
Vats, who was born in Ranchi and grew up in Delhi, now lives between Mumbai and Goa, where his father retired from his last job and lives with his mother. He has been attending IFFI since 2006, and saw it first hand how the festival slowly changed into a “government function”. When the 2015 incident happened, Vats and others were driven by an urge to “reclaim” what is essentially a public space. “IFFI haq hai mera,” he says. (When Doordarshan asked him an exorbitant sum of money for the use of archival footage in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, the docu on Manohar Aich, Vats says he “out-irritated” them, and didn’t pay).
This attitude informs Eeb Allay Ooo!, where Raisina Hill, home to the country’s most important government buildings, with its cool shaded avenues and magnificent structures, provides the surreal location for the film. Looking back at that volatile week in Goa, Vats says that the fact that they managed to come out of it with a film gave him “the confidence that he can make a fiction film by shooting real spaces, in conditions which are not in his control as a director”. “Because as directors, we crave control. So leaving that control can be very liberating,” he says.
There is a documentary aspect to Eeb Allay Ooo!—apart from the locations, and the way the monkeys have been shot, Mahender, a real life monkey repeller, a newspaper profile of who sparked off the film, plays a version of himself. But there’s always a documentary aspect when you’re making a fiction film. “In filmmaking you have to negotiate so much with reality, in shooting in places, sun, light, air, those kind of things that anyway that negotiation is constantly happening.”
“If you see, it has a very classical hero’s journey, at least for sometime. There’s a call to adventure, and he is reluctant and then he sets out on a journey…,” says Vats.
It helped that Vats, Sahi, and Bigyna Dahal, the sound designer, had done documentary work before. But the narrative thrust came from fiction, and that Vats and Shubham wanted to send the film in a certain direction, so they couldn’t just let the film find its own course. “If you see, it has a very classical hero’s journey, at least for sometime. There’s a call to adventure, and he is reluctant and then he sets out on a journey…,” says Vats. He gives credit to the writing in the way it allowed the film to “flower” on location, and lends itself to multiple readings.
When I ask him if the film’s ending means that Anjani gets inducted into a mob, he emphasises on its open-endedness. While the vibrancy of the sequence, with its “religious and nationalistic icons, hanuman and behrupiya, colour and music”, has a “carnivalesque” vibe to it, there is, however, “something sinister about it”. Vats recalls asking Shubham in November, 2019, soon after the film had its India premiere at MAMI (where it won two top prizes), what it meant to him, and he said, ‘Mujhe toh Ayodhya ki taiyyari lag rahi hai.” The Supreme Court verdict on Babri masjid came next month. Notice also that Eeb Allay Ooo! was already playing at film festivals around the world well before our gazes turned to the plight of the migrant workers during the Coronavirus lockdown. “That’s what I mean when I say that it all boils down to the writing, because in principle you’ve got on to something so fundamental na, that it doesn’t matter if something changes, because in that bracket it’s always going to be correct,” he says, “We tend to forget that Delhi is also a migrant city, it’s not just a Punjabi city, or South Delhi. There are many aspects to it.”
It’s no surprise that Shubham also wrote Vishanu, the only segment from the lockdown anthology on Amazon Prime Video that told the story of a migrant family, directed by Avinash Arun, a classmate of Vats at FTII. (Bharadwaj featured in another segment, along with Ratna Pathak Shah, where he plays a Muslim auto driver in Mumbai.) There is often, as Vats puts it, this sort of “overlapping” between FTII alumni who are now making films, knocking on the doors of mainstream entertainment. Zoya Akhtar couldn’t stop raving about Eeb Allay Ooo!, which led to her interviewing Vats in a video conversation arranged by MAMI. Arun co-directed Paatal Lok, one of India’s most watched, and critically acclaimed web series, from last year. There were two films shown at the “We Are One Global Film Festival”, hosted on YouTube during the lockdown: Eeb Allay Ooo! and Nasir; both were shot by Sahi.
There is a sense of community among the recent batches of FTII alumni–one is often aware of what the other is working on. Not only are the director, cinematographer, editor, sound designer and the lead actor in Eeb Allay Ooo! from FTII, so are the actors in the role of Anjani’s sister (Nutan Sinha), his brother-in-law (Shashi Bhushan) and the girl who lives next door (Naina Sareen), as well as the producer (Shwetaabh Singh). Vats—who spoke to me from Rishikesh, where he is working on Badhai Do as an Associate and Second Unit director—can tell you of more FTII pass outs who have gone on to make their mark in the world of cinema, but he’s tired of trying to justify his alma mater, and the need to protect its core values. I remind him of an Arnab Goswami debate—if it can be called that—back in 2015 where Vats participated along with Chauhan. Anupam Kher was there, too. So ridiculous was Chauhan’s appointment that even Kher didn’t try to defend it, but he didn’t leave the chance to slander the institute with a random, irresponsible comment that reeked of the kind of anti-intellectual, anti-student thinking that has come to represent the current government and its supporters.
“FTII has gone to the dogs,” Vats repeats the lines before I finish my sentence, “I’ll never forget.” He had pounced back at Kher, countering him with a ferocity that was passionate and on point. But an Arnab Goswami programme is hardly a place to have a nuanced conversation, as he soon realised. “I know how it was to be on that show, because he is its trying to dumb down the argument and making it into a fist fight and you’re like what the fuck is happening, but you’ve gone there because serious stuff will be discussed… Kuchh arguments hote hi aise hai na that you enter from anywhere and you will look like a fool. Because it’s like fake news, it’s not based on facts, so you can’t counter them with facts,” he says, “But again, that’s why, thank god we can make films.”