Smriti Kiran: Zoya Akhtar, welcome to Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story. We’re so glad you’re here. We thought that it’s time that you and Prateek met.
Zoya Akhtar: Thank you for having me.
Prateek, I am so happy to meet you. I have gone mad after seeing your film, which I’ve watched twice now. I absolutely loved it. I have to say I knew nothing about it. The first time I saw it, I thought that the title was in another language. So, I was like, ‘Okay, so this is a film in another language, and I’m gonna watch it and I’ll figure out what it is.’ And it started and in the first scene, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’
It’s very rare to come across Indian stories that you know nothing about. That hasn’t happened to me in a very, very, very long time. I’m not a Delhi girl, so I didn’t know anything about this job function to chase the monkeys. I know about the monkeys in Lutyens’ but I didn’t know this existed. It just blew my mind.
Then it went into being this complete statement on reality and the state of contemporary India. And it’s such a hard-hitting take. It’s done without any cynicism, any bitterness, any overt hammering. So, I would like to talk about the aspect that starts off as being satire and then it just grabs you, and at the same time, you haven’t hit home. Like, it wasn’t a conscious decision to keep it subtle? Let’s talk about how you kept the bitterness out.
Prateek Vats: Right now, there is a lot of bitterness and anger in me personally, given the state of affairs, but we were very clear that the film didn’t have to carry that baggage. The whole point of us being filmmakers is to show our take. The situation is bad, but we are nobody to change it. But what is our take on it? Very early on, Shubham and I decided that our take would be more burlesque and farcical because the situation to us seems like that right now. The kind of institutional mechanisms that are being put to handle an impossible situation and who’s getting screwed is all these people who are trying to execute this. It’s not their fault. Strange kinds of jobs are coming up and this whole problem of Lutyens’ Delhi and monkeys there to us sounded like it can only be satire. We’re not saying which is good or which is bad. We are just saying this is a very funny situation where this is such a secure building and shooting there is… I don’t know if you’ve ever shot around that side.
Zoya Akhtar: We shot there for Lakshya ages ago when Farhan (Akhtar) was making it. My parents were both in the Rajya Sabha so I have actually spent a lot of time living there. Every time I went to Delhi, I lived there. I know the monkeys and the peacocks that visit – it’s quite gorgeous.
Prateek Vats: When we used to take a camera there, things would suddenly change because we were trying to frame the monkeys. We tried to explain this to the security – that we are not interested in breaching security, we just want to capture that monkey in a nice close-up. It was hilarious. The whole making of it is also hilarious. So that is the spirit. It’s more of an invitation to discuss and talk than me telling you what I feel is correct. That was very important for us because, anyway, it gets into an overbearing thing towards the end. If we would have taken that approach, then it would have become a very heavy and tedious film.
Zoya Akhtar: It was a very, very fine balance. Coming to what you said about the monkeys – you just went there with your camera and waited, is that how you shot them?
Prateek Vats: Not really. We had spent a lot of time – me and the writer, Shubham – with the people who do this work. We’d spend two to three months moving around with them and figuring out patterns of movements of the monkeys. And they would tell us how to preempt, how to predict, how to map out the movement. While making our schedules, we were very critical – ki subah ko bandar udhar hota hai, toh udhar karenge, dupher ko by that time they would have moved in this direction so we need to figure out how to schedule all of that. That was a lot of fun.
Zoya Akhtar: When you were using the character of Anjani and him interacting with the monkey, which was shot separately, it was cut one-one, not an OS? From all the footage of the monkey you had, you decided the reaction to that particular scene on the edit? Or you knew what you wanted the monkey to be like before you got into the scene?
Prateek Vats: In principle, we knew what we wanted. A lot of times it was a mixture. Sometimes we would shoot the monkey first and then tutor Shardul’s responses towards them. Sometimes we knew what we wanted because of the script. For example, there has to be a point where Anjani hits the monkey, like a catapult. Thankfully, that monkey was so wonderful and it was giving us all the things we needed. It helped in creating all the humour. These are the kinds of things that will otherwise make it a very violent and dark film, if you have illustrative violence. So it countered really well. The main thing was trying to match the lensing when we were cross-cutting or cutting back and forth. We also tried to avoid shot-countershot where our actors were there to create a context. We didn’t want to keep cutting away from the monkeys and keep coming back.
Zoya Akhtar: But you have certain scenes with him and the monkey, like when he’s on the trashcan, so you have a context where they’re both in frame.
There’s something wonderful about the fact that they can’t harm the monkeys. It’s a very heartening reality that you shoo them away but you can’t harm the animal and you just wish that the same care is now transferred to the humans. It’s very weird. So, there’s one part of you that’s feeling, ‘Thank God, animals are not going to get harmed!’ and then you realise that the character is killed by the crowd because he accidentally killed a monkey. It’s such a weird feeling where you see that the value of human life is not there. But you’re thankful that the monkeys are being protected.
Prateek Vats: That’s the thing. The people with the guns are there for the people and not the monkeys. That’s the basic essence of it. People are interchangeable and there will be institutional mechanisms around monkeys.
It’s not about people or monkeys. It’s about how we calibrate our response. It’s like students getting the same kind of treatment as a terrorist would get, then you say there’s a problem. It’s not which party is in power. There’s a problem. There’s a reason why students are students and there’s a reason why workers are workers. As you said, it’s heartening to know that these kinds of mechanisms can exist, this kind of sensitivity towards not hurting the animal can exist, so I think we can devise similar things for people as well. Violence has to go, otherwise, how do we solve anything?
Zoya Akhtar: I totally hear you. There’s one scene that really stays with you: when they’re putting up the cage as a joke and trap him. And they are playing, messing with him and it deeply affects him and he comes out and you see the monkey going in, and the monkey gets trapped in and you cut to a shot of the lead at that point. What were you thinking at that point?
Prateek Vats: We were trying to do a couple of things fundamentally. One, we knew there were a lot of non-fiction elements in the film – there will be a lot of reality that we would be dealing with in terms of the people, locations, a lot of things. We were constantly trying to figure out how to devise a design. What will be the design of this reality in terms of colour and lensing? There would be long conversations with me and Somu (Saumyananda Sahi), trying to figure it out. The second part that was important was this man-monkey transference without making it metaphorical. It wasn’t supposed to be a metaphor for anything but the fact that Anjani is in a cage, then the monkey is in a cage, we chose to end the scene with Anjani because it’s his story. We are sensitive to animals but it’s not the monkey’s story. So that idea of how we keep the monkey and Anjani together because, in the end, he had to become a monkey. First, after Republic Day, and then, at the end with that whole procession. Slowly we wanted to show the monkey and Anjani separately, then Anjani and the monkey together.
Zoya Akhtar: He comes into his own in that costume. He finds an abandon he normally doesn’t have.
What was interesting to me in the film is the women. They are all extremely strong – from the sister, the love interest, even the doctor, they are really tough. Was that a conscious choice, how you wrote the women?
Prateek Vats: My basic idea was to try to create situations, circumstances or scenes, which would reveal different layers of characters. The problem arises when the plot dictates what the character will do, or vice versa where there is no plot and only the character is deciding. We sort of wanted to have this thing of a power tool like a gun disrupting the balance of the home. Well, how do you respond? How do you respond to your salary being increased and being given a gun? That kind of situation will automatically create more nuanced characters. All our research was spending time in the basti and meeting a lot of people. Most of the women characters had a lot of agency. They weren’t subservient. We wanted to keep agency with people, have them as working women and have them with their own struggles, which were not being defined by the husband or the brother or any other character in their life.
Zoya Akhtar: That was very fresh. It’s good to watch that stuff and get it reinforced again and again. And Shardul is incredible. Where did you find him?
Prateek Vats: From film school – Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). But I have known him since Delhi theatre days. He was in the same theatre group as I was but after many batches. I’d seen him perform in a play many years ago and I thought he was a very special actor. Then I had done one workshop with him when he was still a student at FTII. We feel some actors have that kind of a thing – with all their rough edges and all their misgivings – because they have that kind of face, the eyes, there’s something in the body and there’s a certain kind of sincerity towards approaching their work. That becomes a very good mixture, and we really put him through hell. It was really tough.
Zoya Akhtar: What was the process? What did you do?
Prateek Vats: We got him on board about two-three months before the shoot. During that time, it wasn’t to do with tera character yeh hai and background and all that. But we were trying to de-class him because he comes from a certain middle class, English Honours, Delhi University life. So he carries all that with him. That had to go. Instead of workshops, he was actually going around with Mahindra, figuring out what happens and just living it. We told him not to observe and I gave him one book to read. Apart from that, he was just spending a lot of time in those areas, trying to figure out, living it rather than observing it. As we got closer to the shoot, we would rehearse a lot according to the kind of scenes we had. There would be long rehearsals with Naina (Sareen), him or the sister and things like that, where we would try to figure out different ways of approaching a scene and then decide on what was most suitable for the film.
It was nice with him, Naina, the sister and the brother-in-law. You push them, they improvise and do something, but they’ll also have an understanding of the medium. You know what a lens is, and if you want to choreograph something particularly for a shot, it won’t hinder them in their realism. Anyway, we were not trying to just be realistic. But how do we create a real fight? How do we create a real argument, which doesn’t have to be in terms of one is high one is low? We are always trying to do something fun. In the script, because of this gun coming in, things would become overbearing and we wanted to shed all that tension with this.
Zoya Akhtar: Was there a lot of ad-lib through your readings?
Prateek Vats: With the trained actors, no. With Mahinder, yes. We would really like to not bind him in dialogues but we would tell him what had to be said.
Zoya Akhtar: He was very good.
Prateek Vats: He was brilliant and he sort of understood what we would try and tell him. He’s a very busy person, so it was like dealing with a big actor. You have three hours, so you very well finish that scene, get all the coverage because he has to go to some MP’s fancy house to do his job. We would spend a lot of time with him, talk a lot, trying to understand, and then see the scenes closer to what he’s living in life. It was familiar to him. Since it was such a dramatic script, he had to tell us a few things which are critical. It couldn’t be ad-libbing, otherwise, scenes would keep becoming longer and longer, which was then pulling the base down.
Zoya Akhtar: Your writer is superb. It is very well written. Shubham has done the dialogues as well?
Prateek Vats: Yeah. Shubham has written the story; he and I have done the dialogues. He was also the production designer of the film. He’s also the associate director of the film. He did a lot of work – not just the writing. I think he got scared that we would not be able to pull off what he had written so he got himself involved in everything. That was really paying dividends because Shubham and I were very clear about what all could be achieved with the monkeys. Other people hadn’t spent so much time so they would be like itna kya karna hai. And we knew what could be achieved. That sort of gave us that liberty to push our other scenes in terms of humour, or in the meandering-ness of the whole thing. That’s why we knew we could take the liberty of stretching time with something like the gun. Stretch time because you’ve created the space for yourself by backing it up with monkeys and humour. We thought that the gun could enter then. Also, it wasn’t just a prop. You could feel the weight of it. It was a big gun.
As you said, women characters are something else but the men and that hypermasculinity associated with the gun and all that is also something. I think it’s one of the most terrible legacies of cinema we have. This whole idea of a gun and a man and what they both become.
Zoya Akhtar: I know what you’re saying, but I love gangster movies. I totally agree with you. But I don’t know what it is, I can keep watching like a mad person. Most often, they are the films I end up watching repeatedly.
Prateek Vats: There’s such great command over craft that it’s like those unputdownable novels. It’s not James Joyce, but I cannot stop it. And the way these kinds of films push craft is funny. And that’s why it is a terrible legacy because they’re so well done.
Zoya Akhtar: And in the good ones, there’s also that fallen hero syndrome. There’s that character that’s actually glorified but they’re not glorified, and they always end up dead or alone. There’s that aspect of someone that you’re admiring, you know it’s wrong and there’s that thing in it. I find it very attractive, in a way. I keep watching them. That’s the only time I would use guns. I am dying to do one gangster movie but otherwise, I’m not into it… I prefer them to war films. I find war way more annoying and upsetting and disturbing.
Prateek Vats: For me, it’s always been a question of craft. Anything done well has a way of saying a lot of things rather than just a person with a gun. We wanted to put our gun in a house, which is dealing with some other things only in their life. They won’t know what to do with a gun – this instrument of power – when their life is actually pushed to margins every day. So, it will destabilise. That’s what we were willing to do because that’s the power of the gun in our film, which is about monkeys and fun. We wanted to let this gun come and without firing see whether it could destabilise the whole world that we set up in the first half.
Zoya Akhtar: It does. It’s also such a tiny space and it’s a really big gun. The presence of that object is large in that space, but then you also use it there. Everybody bullies who they can in the film, and everybody’s servile to who they have to be. When the guy who’s buying the goods from the wife, Anjani’s sister, starts harassing her because she’s gonna be slightly late as they don’t have electricity and he’s rude to her, the husband pulls it out and uses it. That was very interesting. That’s the end of that story.
Because that’s what her fear was, that it was going to get there and it did. That’s how we are constructed to behave in this society with people. What was interesting was that the character of Anjani actually had a sense of identity. When the film starts, he had a sense of who he was, what he wants and what he doesn’t, what he likes and what he doesn’t, what is fair and what is unfair, till he’s kind of beaten into being told he shouldn’t speak. He didn’t start off as someone who was servile.
Prateek Vats: It had to be this entitled person – where a young boy feels like he’s entitled to a few things, ‘This is my right’. It sort of goes one day at a time where you realise I am not entitled to anything, and it takes a while to adjust. Pity was not something we were interested in. This whole idea of creating sympathy by making vulnerable characters is an easy trope. It is something that has been done a lot and it’s also limiting. Coen brothers do that so wonderfully in Inside Llewyn Davis – all our sympathies are with the protagonist even without him doing anything nice. I don’t know how they do it – the making, that craft, that devising of scenes, that plotting of the scenes after one another.
Zoya Akhtar: And the humanity, because who’s doing everything correctly in life including you? Everyone’s kind of messed up; it’s just to a different degree. So you enjoy characters that are flawed because they’re closer to you.
Prateek Vats: It’s the imperfections. Otherwise, these are conceptual characters. They’re not real people. The flaws that you’re talking about is what really embellishes, it makes a person and situations 3D and goes beyond judgment. Anjani is also a prick when he shouts at Kumudh in the cybercafe because she’s trying to talk some sense, because, again, she’s below him and he can shout at her. In the whole film, he doesn’t do that to anyone. And the brother-in-law feels the thekedar is lesser than him so he will pull a gun on him. Delhi ki film hai toh hierarchy toh honi padegi bahot saari.
Zoya Akhtar: How did you find out about these people? This job function? Is it something that you know because you’re from Delhi?
Prateek Vats: Not really. When we were in college, we saw people coming in doing this kind of thing, when langurs were still being used. But my interest piqued in 2014. I’d read a profile of Mahinder in the newspaper. Kind of an odd job situation where this one is doing this. I found it fascinating. It was that immediate kind of pull. I cut out that article, kept it with me for four years and tried to figure out how to frame it, because this was such a unique thing. I wanted a backdrop and a canvas to fit this. Otherwise, it could have been an odd job film. It sort of happened over three-four years. But Mahinder was the key – reaching out to him, talking to him, spending time and trying to understand what this is. People in Delhi do not realise this. They might have seen it, but it doesn’t register on a day-to-day basis. Because it’s such a bustling place. Nobody actually cares.
Zoya Akhtar: I have never heard of the existence of this job or the fact that you may need to keep monkeys out.
Prateek Vats: You should see the officials who are dealing with this during Republic Day. Everybody’s hyperactive but these guys are hyperventilating because one monkey will come and get into some VIP enclosure. They are paranoid about this. It’s very, very funny. And you realise you think it is funny because they’re really scared. So it’s something we thought was the flavour of the film – that there has to be serious-ness about the film, but it has to be funny. It has to be done seriously with a certain kind of gravity.
Zoya Akhtar: You struck a very fine balance. So what are you doing now?
Prateek Vats: It’s more of a writing phase right now – trying to better a draft of the script. It’s a good time – there’s no rush right now. In the last few months, I realised that my rushing is not changing anything at all. I think I’ll take some time to finish this.
Zoya Akhtar: It was lovely to meet you.
Prateek Vats: Same here Zoya.
Smriti Kiran: I know there are no answers right now to this or a solution to this, but there are so many films including Prateek’s film that don’t have a life right now in the sense that they’re not going to festivals or OTT platforms. The deals have not happened or materialised. It’s a very difficult thing to actually get it out there. Do you have any thoughts about how something can be created? Or there can be a space where at least films like this have a life?
Zoya Akhtar: Let me think about it because it has to be seen.
Smriti Kiran: I feel that a film like Eeb Allay Ooo! that has been celebrated and loved by everyone, that got record-breaking views in the entire We Are One festival, has gone to Berlin, impressed the jury at MAMI. The organisers of We Are One actually wrote to Shwetaabh (Singh), who’s the producer of the film, asking whether they needed help. Isn’t it time that we started thinking about this so these films can have a life?
Zoya Akhtar: That’s really interesting. But let me think about this. And I’m not just saying that. I will. Let me talk to a couple of people.
Since this conversation took place, Eeb Allay Ooo! released in theatres on 18th December 2020, and started streaming on Netflix from 18th February 2021.