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Interview Hindi

Why make movies if we can’t engage with what is happening around us: Filmmaker Prateek Vats

Prateek Vats speaks about his debut feature film Eeb Allay Ooo! and why it is important for a filmmaker to address socio-political realities in his work.

Filmmaker Prateek Vats. Photo: Courtesy Kazhcha Film Forum

Sukhpreet Kahlon

When a young migrant worker Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) comes to the city of Delhi, he reluctantly accepts an unusual job, that of monkey chaser, to protect government buildings in the high-security areas of the capital and their inhabitants.

As the seat of political power in the city is plagued by monkeys, Anjani finds inventive ways of executing his responsibilities, only to be threatened with the loss of his livelihood.

Through the portrayal of the lives of Anjani, his family and the milieu, the film draws attention to contemporary reality where citizens are manipulated, oppressed, and confronted with violence, uncertainty and loss of livelihood on a daily basis, forcing one to question what it means to be a citizen in today’s times.

Eeb Allay Ooo! is the debut feature of filmmaker Prateek Vats, whose documentary, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (2017), was produced by the Films Division and won the Special Jury prize at the National Film Awards 2017.

Eeb Allay Ooo! was premiered at the Pingyao International Film Festival in China and won the Golden Gateway award at the 21st Mumbai Film Festival 2019. The film was also enthusiastically received at the Kazhcha-NIV Indie Film Festival in Trivandrum, where it was in competition for the Best Film award.

In a conversation with Cinestaan.com on the sidelines of the festival, Prateek Vats spoke about the engagement of the film with a range of issues and the need for government institutions to support independent filmmaking. Excerpts:

Was there a particular incident that propelled you to make the film or is it coming from a response to a number of things?

It’s a response to a number of things. Till 2017, I was just making documentaries and didn’t want to take up anything else. This idea [of the film] was there, but I was very clear that I didn’t want to make a documentary because I thought it would inhibit our ability to take a leap from this situation and comment on something bigger than something like an odd job.

So, it’s a culmination of what has been happening since 2015 with the educational institutes and the labour system, the mixing of a religious and national identity. So these became themes around which we were building our scenes keeping in mind how the characters define or inhabit these situations.

I think, sometimes, we make the mistake of making our characters too evolved and intelligent and take them away from who they are. We didn’t want to do that and wanted to talk about these things and it was about how people negotiate them on a daily basis.

How important is the role of humour in your film, which deals with a range of issues and engages with the current political climate?

I find it very important, and it’s a very personal choice also. For me, it helps to draw people into the narrative and then take them where we want. Humour also brings an everydayness into the rhetoric and these discourses. Especially if you are trying for something like satire, humour is something that happens to the audience, not the character. So they are in a certain situation and it’s like somebody slipping on a banana peel. You are laughing, but you shouldn’t be. Sometimes we try and go for comedy in the scene and I feel that makes the scene too anxious because we want to reach somewhere very quickly rather than enjoy the journey. I think humour helps in going between plot points and helps people not to lose interest. 

At the festival here, we have seen several films that choose to either depict a pastoral landscape or are situated within very personal stories or contexts. In contrast, your film is located in a big city and engages with the current times. As a filmmaker, how important is it for you to engage with contemporary reality?

It’s fundamental. Otherwise why make films, if we can’t engage with what is happening around us? Some people like to go back and train their lens on their family, some go back to their village or their town. Mostly because of the resource situation, people turn to their homes, whether it is a village or a city. Sometimes I feel that shooting in a city becomes too daunting, physically, and that becomes a reason wherein independent films also go into a bubble. It’s as if those are the only kind of people who exist in the world.

In that particular world that is created.

Yes, so that doesn’t work too well for me. I think we need to evoke the world outside the frame… in [Eeb Allay Ooo!], we can find the story of any of the characters if we follow them long enough, be it the sister, the contractor, Mahinder, so in a way there are no supporting characters. You are following Anjani more, so this becomes his story, but the rest of them are making the story of which Anjani is a part.

I keep asking myself what is our response to stimuli. How do we deal with violence? And that is a fundamental question for both me and Shubham, who has written the film. Is it illustration and then trying to critique it? Is it spoofing it? Or is it that I see it like this and can that one gun, without ever being fired, become this notion of destabilizing a family unit and then a larger thing?

I don’t like illustrating violence at all. I think it’s in bad taste. I think it’s lazy and I think it’s going still for a value that no longer has it. We watch lynching videos and nothing can be more shocking than that. I think we, as filmmakers, need to redefine our takes, otherwise we will end up the way television has ended up, trying to spoof something and just becoming very regressive, taking us back rather than forward.

We were talking earlier about subsidies for the arts, especially since we are seeing spaces for independent films shrinking even within festivals. What are your thoughts?

I don’t like the word ‘subsidy’. At the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India], when we used to haggle with the government for budgets, they used to say this is subsidy, but when they give tax cuts to multiplexes, that’s an 'incentive'. So, I think we need to look at it as an incentive and for that, platforms like NFDC [National Film Development Corporation], Films Division or the state bodies, they become very important.

Even though budgets are low and there are bureaucratic hassles, that’s okay. These institutions also need to say we will back plural cinema practices which are of different kinds, languages, concerns, experimental, narrative, non-narrative; which, unfortunately, is going the other way, so we are all very concerned.

As someone who has made a film with the Films Division, we know the advantages and disadvantages, but them not funding [films] is not a solution at all. The inefficiencies have to be addressed but not by hacking the tree.

We need to think beyond this terminology of ‘subsidy’ and ‘grant’ and think of it as an investment into building the cultural capital of the country, building a sensitive audience, experimenting with new kinds of practices. So, they have a very very important role to play.

Related topics

Kazhcha Indie Film Festival MAMI Mumbai Film Festival