Jio MAMI is a home to storytellers and a space that nurtures, enables and brings into focus talent. Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story is our new series nurturing and bringing budding talent in focus. It is our little discovery vehicle to build bridges, to propel movie magic and the spirit of collaboration. It introduces creators to each other and new creators to the audience.
In our first episode, Smriti Kiran and Kalpana Nair sat down with filmmaker Prateek Vats and introduced him to Zoya Akhtar to chat about his acclaimed film Eeb Allay Ooo!
Eeb Allay Ooo! screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2019 where it won the Golden Gateway Award, the Young Critics Choice Award and a Special Jury Mention for actor Shardul Bharadwaj. It went on to screen at the Berlin International Film Festival in the Panorama section and was also part of Jio MAMI’s selection at the pioneering We Are One: A Global Film Festival where it garnered a record-breaking one lakh forty-five thousand plus views in just 24 hours.
Eeb Allay Ooo! is now streaming on Netflix.
Smriti Kiran: Prateek, welcome to Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story
Kalpana Nair: Thank you so much for making the time.
Prateek Vats: Thank you for having me, guys.
Smriti Kiran: I hope this time has been good for you. You have kind of made peace with the fact that there’s not much movement that’s happening in the world.
Prateek Vats: Yeah, in the sense that you don’t have a choice, you have to make peace with it, you have to work with it. Trying to keep sane is good enough, I guess.
Kalpana Nair: Coming from the fact that we are all grappling with the horrific year that was 2020, you made a satire that released in 2019 and you touched upon issues like urban migration and religious fascism. 2020 was a year where the boundary between what is real and what is satire seemed blurred. Now that it’s been more than a year since Eeb Allay Ooo! has been out in the world, what are your thoughts when you evaluate the political comment that you were making at that point?
Prateek Vats: We’ve seen the worst of our systems play out. It has exposed the fault lines that exist in our system. We tend to believe that normal is good, and anything extraordinary is not so good. But this normalcy has caused a numbness. When Shubham and I were writing Eeb Allay Ooo!, thinking about it in the prewriting stage, that was the concern: how do we put it in a lens so that it goes beyond ‘18 or ‘19, or ‘20, or something outside of, say, a pandemic? But a lot of our citizens are going through this hell every day, irrespective of the pandemic or not. Maybe we, collectively, understand it a little better because of the insecurity that this pandemic has caused in our middle-class set up that exists and the system of working. This is the main bane of contractual employment across the informal sector. It is so insecure that it absolves one of any future that they can plan or build. And everything is so transient – here today, gone tomorrow.
It’s not just the pandemic, it’s also the demonetization. It’s pretty much been like that because more than 90% of our labour force is in the informal sector. We tend to selectively look at data and see the second largest growing economy. But still, a large chunk is very exposed to these vagaries. The pandemic has helped us – those who are not dealing with all this – look at this film in a different light, which framed it better.
Smriti Kiran: Eeb Allay Ooo! has been the toast of the festival circuit. When we were programming for We Are One, I know that the one thing that they really wanted was the monkey film. Even at MAMI, the jury went completely nuts about the movie – they loved it. You were in the middle of what was going to be a packed festival schedule, a possible theatrical release, when the pandemic struck, right? How has it affected the journey of the film? How did you deal with such a major unexpected paradigm shift?
Prateek Vats: When you are embarking on an independent film project, you’re bracing yourself for a long struggle, and a graded struggle from the production to getting the production together, and going to film bazaars, and then finally putting it out. In this film, we already knew that we were dealing in humour, dealing in satire, a farcical form of control. So we always knew the audience was a large one. It wasn’t a niche audience. It wasn’t trying to be didactic about what we were trying to say. And for that reason, we were very sure that we wanted to put it out to as many platforms as possible. It was always going to be tough. But by the time we finished MAMI and Berlin, there were strong discussions going on about how we could do this.
At that time, I think the main issue was that there was a lot of anxiety. Most of the festivals getting cancelled was a big issue and struggle. And the struggle was mainly just to keep ourselves going, and saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s not in our hands. We’ve done what we can do.’ Sometimes you take on stress about things that are not in control. We were just trying to avoid that and ensuring that we speak through this quarantine because nobody is sure and we can’t just add another level of our anxieties over it. We were lucky enough to be in a position to wait it out. Then the We Are One festival put it back on track. It gave us that momentum again and post that some festivals in Europe started opening again. We embraced this digital festival space because we were in a position to do it after having played at a few on ground festivals and we also really wanted to put this film out, we wanted people to watch it and to show it in different spaces.
One of my biggest regrets is that I haven’t been able to show it around in Delhi as much as I would like – in the universities, in the theatre spaces, in studios. Post-December 2019, Delhi has just been a big shitstorm. So all that was more concerning. You want to close things out when there’s momentum but we had to sit down and bottle that.
Kalpana Nair: Prateek, when you participated in We Are One, the festival had a lot of buzz around it but your film had gotten a lakh and a half views in 24 hours. And it was the most commented film in the entire We Are One lineup. What was it like to see your film in a medium that you didn’t plan for? And to see that sort of response from all over the world?
Prateek Vats: It was quite overwhelming. And it reassured us of the work we had done, and how we were trying to reach out to people, not trying to get slotted in a niche or any kind of bracket. We always knew there was a wider audience, which was not just cinephiles – that it would connect with a lot of people who are not into films and not in the so-called industry. This really pushed because getting 1,61,000 views for a film which is more than 90 minutes sort of defies algorithms. This is not a big Amazon production, which will be advertised in a certain way or pushed around. So that is very, very exciting. Just to see in front of your eyes, every hour, the machine going up by 10,000-15,000 views. It was like one 24 hours of Housefull screening in a way. Those were unique views. So we don’t even know how many people watched it.
It also gave us a little bit of understanding – it’s okay to not just stick to theatrical. This whole idea of how you release a film in theatres has intrigued me a lot. They pump in so much money in P&A (Publicity and Advertising) and then when the new producer comes in, they will take over the film and the makers are dropped off in the longer run. It gave us confidence that we can do this. We don’t need to let go of the film or any rights which is the biggest problem of an independent film.
The exciting part is that we have been to China, MAMI and Germany and the response has always been fantastic. And to have it accessible to so many people, just reassured us about what we were trying to do. This is the point of a satire. This is the point of a contemporary political film, as we understand. It is not to be didactic because we’re seeing what is happening with everybody thinking they know best and nobody’s listening to each other. We wanted to initiate a conversation. We wanted to invite people in and we figured that was happening – the invitation being accepted. So that was very encouraging.
Smriti Kiran: We noticed that there were some very wonderful overlaps in the India Gold lineup in 2019. There were names that were popping up across the films that were there in competition – Shwetaabh Singh, editor Tanushree Das, cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi. And also Institute’s like FTII, Kirori Mal, DU. Prateek, what is the kind of informal support system or camaraderie that exists within the world of indie films? Do you guys have a WhatsApp group?
Prateek Vats: No, it’s not that kind of camaraderie. If anything, we just call each other up – it’s a better way to communicate. It’s a strange place – we are all friends, we are all acquaintances, but we are also competitors in a way. We are vying for the same festivals. I have had a lot of fun over the last four or five years, because people are doing different kinds of things but together. That’s what is really exciting – if the waves can build up, that is the sign of any good quality cinema being churned out, being improved on. We saw this in the Czech and French New Wave and even closer to home in Taiwan and China, 12-15 years back in Marathi cinema, and before that in Malayalam cinema. Waves have to come, especially in Hindi cinema because right now it’s being bracketed as one-pan India and there is no room left for nuance.
Sometimes I feel my film is a regional film. Hindi is just a communication device, but everything about it is that it could be a regional film as well – it could be a film set in Maithili like Achal’s film (Gamak Ghar) that’s set in Delhi. Maithili is my mother tongue. So at some point, these kinds of regional overlaps will also happen where vernacular films are being set in Delhi, Bombay, or Bangalore. There’s this pressure on Hindi films to be pan-Indian because of these flattened out understanding of what Indian-ness is. The north has such an overbearing influence on what is defined as Hindi cinema. Those are the conversations we will be having some time in the future because I always feel like everybody said that if you are making a film in Hindi you won’t even get a state subsidy and no support. How do you expect to get your money back, finish the film, and put it out? What kind of a support system does a Hindi independent filmmaker have if he or she doesn’t wish to cast an actor or tell it in a certain way? What are the options? There are very few. Sometimes I really wish there were state subsidies for Hindi films. It gives a security net to a first-time independent producer. Imagine Shwetaabh who has produced two Hindi films. Both films are being appreciated but they’re being seen as something else. We need a security net for these kinds of films. And I don’t know how it’s going to happen. But the only security net right now we have is each other and these bunch of people – Bhaskar (Hazarika), Pushpendra (Singh) or Arun (Karthick) or Saurav (Rai) or Kislay or anyone.
It’s amazing how people talk with each other and share experiences – what Ivan (Ayr) would have faced three years back when he was making his first film, or what Vivek (Gomber) was doing when he was working on Court. We are all talking to each other a lot. Sometimes regarding the scripts or getting equipment, sometimes getting access, sometimes just experience-sharing. It is very encouraging. You feel a little bit secure. Little bit.
Kalpana Nair: Prateek when you say that there is very little security but the reason you also need it is because the journey of an independent filmmaker in India right now is so arduous, and when we look at, the two films that you have made, they look like really challenging projects to pull off and stick with. You’ve always downplayed your struggle, and you’ve said, ‘My journey is hard, but it’s not unique’, which feels like an understatement. What kind of will and patience does it take to get something like Eeb Allay Ooo! off the ground?
Prateek Vats: A lot of patience. We started working in the middle of 2017, just after I finished my docu – which had taken me four years to complete. I was wary of getting into a new project because of that kind of commitment. At the same time, the only way I could get over it was by making a new film – fiction because it can be very exciting.
This is partly a response to the previous question about the comraderies of people – you can only embark on such projects when you know you have these kinds of people to back you up – to have a Somu or Tanushree or Shwetaabh or Shubham. These are all friends from the Film Institute. Half of my actors are my classmates. The other half are somebody else’s classmates. The sound recordist is my classmate. Since 2015, when the strike of the students happened, there was a demoralisation of that space. We thought we know how to make films and we should make those which people have to sit back and acknowledge. Not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of the form it takes. People keep asking me what did you learn at FTII and I think it took out the fear of making a film. You’re not scared when you’re there and that is the biggest value we can take out of a space like that. Any educational institution should make you less scared. It’s okay to make a bad film. With that backing, the support system they provided us with initially is wonderful. That and all the years getting to know other people from the Film Institute who are very good at what they do.
With the film, we were trying to understand and look at the whole thing through the lens of the working class gaze. How do we put it in terms of contractual labour and what is it that, as middle-class people, we don’t really understand. Job chodke aisa kya ho gaya? But jab job ka 2000, 3000, 5000 na milna woh ajeeb si insecurity hoti hai. Woh samajhne mein thoda time lag gaya. We had to be patient because we were there to make a film, not execute a script. That confidence also comes from documentary films. It is okay to let go if you know what you’re doing. If I know that Republic Day is what is necessary for me, then you figure out how to shoot a Republic Day. Because if you do, then there’s a value to the film and if the Government of India decides to put a langur there, then it’s perfect for us. You back your instincts and prepare. That kind of attitude helped us.
Shubham and I have worked together for many years before, so the writing process was very quick. And there were a lot of people who I have worked with in theatre in Delhi, the Film Institute, so there’s a lot of trust and communication. You never get bogged down by the grammar of professional filmmaking, but it’s also much more efficient than a bunch of friends making a film.