It’s a truism that satire is the sharpest way of critiquing society’s problems. Make an audience laugh as well as think, and you’ve hit your mark. The trick is knowing how deep to dig while finding that perfect balance of sly humor with unforced, sharp-eyed commentary.
Prateek Vats’ unpretentious debut “Eeb Allay Ooo!” largely gets the equation right, using the amusing antics of a guy hired to shoo away New Delhi’s pesky monkeys to address the capital’s toxic power dynamics. It could however have gone a bit further by using boisterous scenes showing National Day celebrations not just as a soft-pedaled push against the Modi government’s polarizing nationalist rhetoric but a more pointed jab at the ruling party’s poisonous propaganda. Instead, Shubham’s generally praiseworthy script errs on the side of caution, focusing on the protagonist’s personal exasperation and wrapping it up with an ambiguous final scene.
The film premiered at Pingyao in the fall of 2019 before going on to Mumbai, where it won several prizes, and then Panorama at the Berlinale. Still lacking an international sales agent, it’s likely to get a boost as one of the buzzier titles in the We Are One virtual film fest. Given the movie’s overall feel-good nature, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t find a happy home on streaming sites and sat casts.
About that title: No, it’s not a Hindi phrase, but an approximative rendering of the three sounds used by Delhi’s monkey repellers to chase away the sneaky pests. Since Hanuman the simian deity is a key figure in the Hindu pantheon, the animals themselves are considered sacred, which means the rhesus macaques who’ve made the government district, Raisina Hill, their home can’t be harmed — the only kind of accepted control comes from generations of men tutored to chase them off with vocal calls or trained rival langur monkeys. For two decades this has been major news, pitting devout Hindus and animal rights activists against the people who work in the area and are constantly plagued by the occasionally ferocious animals’ bold demands for food.
This is where Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) comes in. Recently arrived in Delhi and living with his pregnant sister (Nutan Sinha) and her husband (Shashi Bhushan), he has an 11th grade education and no job prospects. His family arranges for him to get hired as a monkey repeller, but Anjani is completely unsuited to the task. His sister can boast to people that her brother has a government job, but he knows that contractual labor offers neither security nor prestige, and what’s more, he’s terrified of the beasts, spooked by every threatening gesture and gnashing of teeth. He can’t even generate the right sounds to scare the monkeys away, despite a quick lesson from Mahinder (Mahinder Nath), who comes from a long line of macaque chasers.
Hopeless at his job, he hits on the idea of posting photos of grimacing langurs to frighten off the macaques, but Anjani’s boss Narayan (Nitin Goel) threatens to fire him for creative thinking, and while donning a full langur suit complete with blackface succeeds in amusing the locals, such antics won’t save his job. They do however help him recover a sense of agency: Whereas he felt humiliated by the lowly status and inherent ridiculousness, Anjani turns the job’s absurdity on its head by embracing an anarchic performative identity.
Underlying the story is a heavy atmosphere of power politics in which each character berates and belittles those under their sway. Whether it’s the bullying Narayan upbraiding his employees or Anjani’s sister, cowed by authority but quick to exert control within the family, each character lords it over others — everyone, that is, except Anjani and his fellow monkey chasers, seen as so low on the totem pole that there’s no one for them to push around. The script doesn’t quite know where to go with the side story of the sister and brother-in-law, given just enough personality to be distinctive in their struggles to get by yet not enough to feel three-dimensional, unlike their neighbor, nurse Kumud (Naina Sareen), whose small role is given more impact thanks to Sareen’s confident projection of character.
Vats grounds it all in reality, shooting on location and seamlessly mingling a handful of professional actors with locals for a notable feeling of authenticity. Bhardwaj captures the right mix of wounded pride, annoyance and exasperation, building up Anjani’s energy until his clowning temporarily liberates the character from the humiliation. Much to his credit, Vats treats the real rhesus wranglers such as Mahinder with dignity and respect: when attempted by an amateur, the job seems silly, but in the hands of those trained to scare off the monkeys, the work becomes a necessary public service, done with aplomb and humor.
Cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi is at ease utilizing widescreen spaces, contrasting the formal emptiness around Edwin Lutyens’ grandiose buildings with the dark narrow quarters of Anjani’s sister’s neighborhood. Charismatic animals are of course unashamed scene stealers, but editor Tanushree Das indulges in some amusing simian reaction cuts without adding too much monkey business to the mix.