Eeb Allay Ooo! Review: A Timely Portrait of the Indian Migrant Crisis

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Eeb Allay Ooo! Review: A Timely Portrait of the Indian Migrant Crisis

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There’s a scene in National Award-winning director Prateek Vats’ striking debut, Eeb Allay Ooo! that succinctly captures the degradation of the Indian working class.

As NDMC personnel assemble an iron cage meant to curb the monkey infestation in Delhi’s Raisina Hill, filling it with bananas to trap monkeys, one of them locks Anjani (Shardul Bharadwaj), a young migrant inside the coop. The workers outside stand around mocking Anjani even as his pleas to be let out grow more and more desperate. “Eat like a monkey,” they tell him, throwing bananas into the cage. Bent on all fours and almost on the verge of tears, Anjani does what they say. Soon, he starts gasping for breath. The crowd responds to his humiliation and panic with laughter. On the surface, this scene might come across as a routine act of bullying that is so often dressed as Indian camaraderie. But Vats digs deeper, smartly using both the prank and the pranksters as a stand-in for the power imbalances of a system designed to reduce migrant labour into animals in captivity. Anjani’s helplessness in that moment mirrors the tragic fate of hundreds of contractual labourers who move to cities to forge a new destiny but somehow find themselves stripped of all dignity.

There couldn’t be a more timely reminder of the fragility of migrant life, the precariousness of livelihood, than right now, when we’re watching it all unfold in real-time. Vats’ debut, written by Shubham, has been frighteningly perspicacious.

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There couldn’t be a more timely reminder of the fragility of migrant life, the precariousness of their livelihoods, than right now, when we’re watching it all unfold in real-time.

NaMa Productions

A biting political satire as assured in its filmmaking as it is of its commentary, Eeb Allay Ooo!, that premiered at Mumbai Film Festival last year, is a singular achievement. Deftly blending the frustrations and contradictions of the social, political, and economic realities of society, it paints a portrait of a nation in crisis, one that acquires an added poignancy during the lockdown and the mass exodus of migrants. The film unfolds through the eyes of Anjani, a twenty-something migrant who lives in a cramped one-room settlement in the poorest part of the city with his pregnant sister and brother-in-law. An 11th pass with no employable skills, Anjani is easily expendable in a city bursting at the seams with people like him, jostling to make ends meet. As it turns out, he is also one of the lucky ones, landing a job as a monkey repeller, entrusted with scaring away the simian population lurking around the seat of power in Delhi. Except, his joy is short-lived.

For one, the task at hand isn’t as easy as it is made out to be. Not only is Anjani frightened of the animal he is meant to overpower but he’s also not cut out for the job. His rendition of “Eeb Allay Ooo,” the sound made by the langurs, the enemies of these apes, meant to scare them, isn’t entirely persuasive or productive. Moreover, the job isn’t well-paying and is logistically unfeasible. When he complains about his unhappiness to his sister, she sees no reason in it. “It’s a government job,” she reminds Anjani, implying the societal and financial accomplishment that the stability of a government job provides for families like her, operating well below the poverty line. “It’s a contractual job,” he corrects her. But the bigger truth is that Anjani has no alternatives. “Be grateful that you have a job,” his sister tells him. The implication being, you could so easily not have one in the blink of an eye.

The threat of unemployment lurks in every corner of Eeb Allay Ooo! For Anjani, contractual labour is almost like a family inheritance: His sister toils day and night – even at times with no electricity – as a “piece-rate” worker to package large batches of spices to sell to a middle man who has, for the last two years, refused to increase her pay. Her husband works the night-shift as a security guard at an amusement park, cycling long stretches to cover the journey when the whole world is asleep. This is the kind of household that perennially exists at the mercy of others. Employment is a necessity. But their gruelling jobs that demand complete obedience in an economy always on the lookout for cheap, convenient labour, come with zero guarantee or agency.

Despite their best efforts and even after putting in long hours, the circumstances never seem to get better. Eeb Allay Ooo! argues, without losing touch of its empathy, that the systems in place ensure just that. When Anjani, convinced that Mahinder (played by Mahinder Nath, a real-life monkey repeller), whose family has been in the profession for generations, is withholding some tricks from him, he takes to adopting shortcuts to keep his job. Yet just when his methods seem to make his circumstances work for him, his fate works against him (he makes use of a slingshot but soon finds out that harming the monkeys is forbidden and when he puts up posters of langurs to scare the monkeys, it lands his boss in trouble). He becomes a regular victim of his superior’s rage, is soon handed a pay-cut for taking a tea break, punished for trying to gain an upper-hand in the arrangement, and one fine day, fired without pay.

The irony of Eeb Allay Ooo!’s premise, that is humans creating jobs for other humans to terrorise an animal that they also worship as god, is ripe material for a black comedy.

The irony of the film’s premise, that is humans creating jobs for other humans to terrorise an animal that they also worship as god, is ripe material for a black comedy. But it is to Vats’ credit that he locates the moral epicentre of the story as a social satire. The closest Eeb Allay Ooo! comes to mining its comic potential lies in the stretches of interactions between a terrified Anjani and the horde of monkeys (giving terrific reaction shots) who refuse to pay heed to him. Like the film, these scenes are enlivened by Bharadwaj’s emotionally expressive face that doesn’t miss a beat in capturing Anjani’s hopelessness and ingenuity in equal measure. It is aided by Soumyananda Sahi’s fluid cinematography which is arresting not only in how it translates ignominy into action but also in how it transforms Delhi into a living protagonist.

As a result, Eeb Allay Ooo! becomes a rousing indictment of the double-standards of a society that is heavily reliant on migrants but all too happy to look away from them when it is convenient. It’s this cyclical plot of the family’s never-ending dehumanisation that drives home Eeb Allay Ooo! strongest message: Monkeys aren’t what we should really be scared of. Instead, it’s humans.

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