Shardul Bhardwaj essays the role of Anjani, a monkey repeller, in Eeb Allay Ooo!
What a time it is for young actors, hungry for challenging roles, willing to take risks, like Adarsh Gourav whose remarkable performance in The White Tiger has earned him accolades. Last week I wrote about Gourav and this week, we see Shardul Bhardwaj go head-to-head with monkeys in Eeb Allay Ooo! (on Netflix).
The inspiration for this absurdist satire was a newspaper article. The story spoke of a recruitment drive by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to hire people who would dress up as langurs to help manage the troublesome monkey population in the national capital. This was in response to a change in the law that no longer permitted the use of real langurs to do the job. Instead, humans would dress up as or use the call of the monkey (the inspiration for the title) to achieve the same result.
Eeb Allay Ooo! director Prateek Vats and writer Shubham learned that landing the job and keeping it was no easy task. It came with a host of problems—from dealing with the often-aggressive monkeys to issues of faith and corruption in the system that infiltrated even this unique government department.
The result of months of research, including spending time with the monkey chasers, is a satirical and poignant look at the compulsions of the marginalised, the class divide and systemic errors.
Anjani, recently arrived in Delhi, serves as an apprentice monkey repeller, learning the chant eeb, allay, ooo and the intricacies of battling monkeys that proliferate Lutyens’ Delhi.
Beyond the high walls live chief justices and ministers, troubled by the monkey population that is kept at bay by a human dressed as a langur. It’s not an easy job, and Anjani makes it look even harder.
Desperate to hold on to the position, Anjani innovates but his actions unleash a chain of events that are ironic, disturbing and thought-provoking.
Vats, whose documentary A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (2017) won a National Award, has described his debut feature film as “absurd fiction” and a “hybrid of reality and fiction”.
With a combination of real actors, including Bhardwaj, who so convincingly plays the unskilled Anjani, and real characters, such as Mahender Nath, the expert repeller who plays Anjani’s tutor, the film’s style, too, is a blend of cinema verite and crafted scenes.
Not only did Bhardwaj have to learn to effectively use his voice to call out eeb, allay, ooo to scare off the monkeys, he also had to overcome his concerns about being surrounded by the macaques.
Vats and Shubham also comment on the gig economy — contractual workers who are unaccounted for, unprotected and exploited. The film also builds into a haunting final scene.
When I asked Bhardwaj to interpret the long walk amid the frenzy, he said, “It's an interpretative scene which means two or three different things for me. For me, more than anything, it’s a feeling. I don’t like to talk about that scene because that is reserved for the audience.”
This is that rarely seen intimate film set in Delhi. With humour and symbolism, it enlarges a strange local public service, a skill that is passed down through the generations. Nath himself is a seventh-generation monkey chaser.
Eeb Allay Ooo!, which screened at the Berlin Film Festival 2020, won the best Indian film award at the Mumbai Film Festival (2019) and best film and best director trophies at the Critics Choice Film Awards 2021.
Unlike the shrieking monkeys it captures, the film had a quieter journey in cinemas in December. Many of us would have missed out due to the pandemic and limited theatre access. But there’s no reason to miss it now. Post the pandemic, its message resonates even more acutely.