Eeb Allay Ooo! The story of monkeys and a migrant

Poulomi Das | Updated on March 13, 2020

A poster of the film Eeb Allay Ooo!, which was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival last month

The uncertainty of employment is at the heart of Eeb Allay Ooo!, a Prateek Vats film on a man who keeps the corridors of power in Delhi free of primates

Almost a month after Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) is hired as a monkey repeller — entrusted with the task of scaring away the simian population lurking outside the seats of power in Delhi — he voices his unhappiness with the task at hand. The young migrant is afraid of monkeys, and his mimicry of “Eeb Allay Ooo”, the sound made by langurs — enemies of these primates — isn’t convincing or effective. Moreover, the job doesn’t pay well and there is humiliation aplenty along the way.

“It’s a government job,” Anjani’s sister reminds him, alluding to the sense of security and even status that such jobs bring for families that live below the poverty line. “It’s a contractual job,” the sibling corrects her immediately, refusing to see the implied silver lining. This tense exchange culminates in a heartbreaking moment when Anjani’s sister points out the inescapable truth: The lack of alternatives. He is, after all, a Std XI dropout with no employable skills, easily expendable in a city where countless people like him are struggling to make ends meet. “Be grateful that you have a job,” she tells him.

The uncertainty of employment is at the heart of Eeb Allay Ooo!, Prateek Vats’s debut feature centred on the continued deprivation of the Indian working class, which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. Before travelling to Berlin, the film had its world premiere at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival in Pingyao (Shanxi), China, last year and won top honours at the 2019 edition of the Mumbai Film Festival. The film’s ingenious premise — humans creating a job for other humans to chase away the very animal that some worship as god — is ripe for satire. Vats, who won a National Award for his 2017 documentary A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, is up for the challenge, delivering a sharp, profound, and disturbing commentary on the state of the nation. At a time when the country’s unemployment rate has hit the highest level in three years, Eeb Allay Ooo! holds a mirror to the times we live in.

Capital gains: Contractual labour — even without the benefit of pension — is like an inheritance to a man who lives in a cramped room on the outskirts of Delhi   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FACEBOOK/EEB ALLAY OOO!


Living in a cramped room on the outskirts of Delhi, the contractual labour for Anjani is like a family inheritance. His pregnant sister is stretched thin, selling spices to a middleman who insists on buying at the same old rates from two years ago, even while setting unrealistic deadlines. His brother-in-law works as a security guard, putting in inhuman hours. This is a household where talk of an increment of ₹1,500 is akin to winning a lottery.

Throughout the taut 98 minutes of Eeb Allay Ooo!, Vats (the screenplay is by Shubham) casts an empathetic gaze on how, for an entire class of people who exist at the mercy of others, holding down a job also entails a degree of self-flagellation.

He reveals, with affecting detail, the double standards of the Indian contractual economy. Heavily reliant on migrants, the jobs accommodated under contracts aren’t recognised by the government or come with benefits such as pension. At times, labourers can go for months without being paid. In the film, Anjani himself is yet to see his paycheque. The only demand for these jobs aren’t educational qualifications but complete obedience. If anything, the Indian contract economy is a sanitised form of slavery. There’s an arresting scene in the film where Anjani is chided by a government official on being told to stop feeding a monkey — he eventually moves away after apologising, his job reduced to a mere inconvenience.

The director pits the escalation of Anjani’s humiliations (he is threatened with pay-cut for taking a tea-break) against the bleakness of his fate: Anjani is ultimately punished for daring to strive for a sense of dignity. After all, the rigged system sustains itself on acute power imbalances. It cannot tolerate victims turning into participants (the fluid cinematography by Saumyananda Sahi transforms Delhi into a living protagonist).

In painting a meticulous portrait of the dehumanisation of a family living on the margins of society, Eeb Allay Ooo! is a striking indictment of the class divide perpetuated by the rich and powerful to insulate themselves from any real threat.

References to Achhe Din, gods turning into pests, and allusions to the complicity of politicians in enabling oppression are piled up in Eeb Allay Ooo!. Yet, perhaps the best evidence of the film being a snapshot of India is when it dawns on you that the monkeys were never the enemy. The story was always about human beings going up against one another.

Poulomi Das is a film critic with Arré, an entertainment content platform. She writes at the intersection of films, gender, and social commentary

Published on March 12, 2020

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