Saturday 30 May 2020

From the archive: "Eeb Allay Ooo!"

Homer Simpson once maintained that all movies could be improved with the addition of one vital element: a robot driving instructor. I take Mr. Simpson's point, while also adding one further element to this list: monkeys. The director Prateek Vats fully adheres to McCahill's First Law of Cinema in Eeb Allay Ooo!, which plays like an Indian equivalent of one of Ken Loach's funny, socially pointed comedies - only, you know, with monkeys. Its put-upon hero, Anjani Prasad (Shardul Bharadwaj), is a lowly milquetoast in New Delhi - the type who looks as if he wouldn't say boo to a goose. That look doesn't help him unduly upon landing a new job as a so-called "monkey repeller": one of the many real-life civil servants employed to keep primates away from Delhi's government-owned properties, where the animals have become notorious for eating flags and generally making a nuisance of themselves. (The title is the ululation the repellers deploy in this task, and would roughly translate to "Oi, Clear Off!", thus making it the year's best title.) Clearly, national honour is at stake, though Anjani would do well to heed the wisdom passed on by a shopworn colleague: "When you come face-to-face with a monkey, you will realise how fucked you are."

The film has sight gags galore, not least those cutaways to those pesky blighters waggling furry arses at our hero, or sitting stony-faced and unimpressed at his MP3 recordings of the eponymous cry he's failed to master. It's not just that Eeb Allay Ooo! has monkeys, it's that they're especially well-directed monkeys, forever hitting the right mark for the film to get the desired laugh. Bharadwaj, nicely cast, gets his fair share of chuckles, too, primarily from his displays of exasperation at a task that has defeated many more experienced men than he; it's as though he's been assigned to build a replica of a cathedral using lit matchsticks. Yet the laughs are here to open us up to a sharp line of editorial: Vats wants us to spot the difference between the monkeys, who enjoy sacred status, and the men, who can be rather more easily beaten down and chased around. By the point our migrant labourer hero finds himself trapped in a monkey cage by crueller co-workers and forced to swallow a banana whole, it's become very clear that whatever Anjani can do to the chimps, so too his fellow countrymen can do to him. (The very least of which is to tell him to clear off.) The film's monkeys aren't just monkeys, in other words; they have symbolic value.

Vats sets more than just his animal performers running. When Anjani takes delivery of a rifle, we might well wonder who or what is going to end up being shot; the movie even flirts with action-thriller tropes when our boy is assigned to keep the apes away from a National Day parade. (It's In the Line of Fire with a screeching furball where John Malkovich used to be.) Yet Eeb Allay Ooo! is larkier for longer than Loach would allow - not a criticism, for those of us who've always found Loach's salty good humour a strength. The parade leads to Anjani assuming a new identity, by donning a langur costume, complete with ankle bells and a flagpole for a tail ("to fight them, I must think like them"). Does the MCU have room for a Monkey Man, a Hanu-Man? Yet Vats equally spies how this reduces his protagonist to sight-gag status, and the indignity entailed in losing such a job - how he's become as great a nuisance to his employers as the creatures he was hired to see off. In the final moments, we see Anjani performing a fevered, animalistic dance in costume to a crowd of bemused onlookers - not so much a show of dominance as a statement of defiance against those market forces that would render him, and those like him, extinct. The statement, like the title, comes in three-word shrieks. I am here. Deal with it. What comes next?

(October 2019)

Eeb Allay Ooo! screens today as part of the We Are 1 festival on YouTube: it can be accessed here for the next 24 hours.

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