Screen grab from 'Eeb Allay Ooo!' (2019) / Netflix
Screen grab from 'Eeb Allay Ooo!' (2019) / Netflix

The quintessential prey

Care, coexistence and predation in a recent Hindi film on human-animal relations.

Megnaa Mehtta is an environmental anthropologist with an interest in values, emotions, mythologies and ideas of well-being, as they intersect with debates in global conservation and political ecology. She is currently working on her book manuscript tentatively titled Conserving life: political imaginaries from a submerging forest.

Like millions of other migrants on whose backs cities like Delhi are built on, Anjani is desperate for a job. Any job. His sister, whom he lives with in a one-room home in a basti on the outskirts of Delhi, is pregnant and very keen – in that somewhat fierce, yet caring and overbearing way – that Anjani takes up a slightly unconventional, albeit, 'government' job (sarkari naukri) to chase away monkeys from Lutyens' Delhi. There is something simultaneously absurd and farcical yet also endearing about Anjani's new job. Even as it is located on Raisina Hill, the literal and metaphorical centre of Delhi and India's power, the monkey-chasing job is on a contractual basis and has none of the perks of a real sarkari naukri. Its premise is both ridiculous and requires, as a job description, a fair amount of ridiculing. But like most jobs, this one, too, is a matter of survival. The film Eeb Allay Ooo! directed by Prateek Vats is woven around what might be perceived as a fairly simple plot: monkeys are a menace in central Delhi and because they have the potential to disrupt government meetings and formal dinner parties at the offices and homes of ministers, a set of monkey-chasers, who belong to Delhi's urban poor, are employed to chase them away.  Within a few minutes though, we enter into a world of metaphor and metonymy embedded in the lopsided materiality of Delhi and its various human and nonhuman inhabitants. This is a film that revels – from start to finish – in a deeply disquieting form of dark humour.
Anjani is bad at his new job. He is also justifiably scared of the monkeys that he is meant to scare away. In contrast, Mahinder is a man whose livelihood, passed on generationally, has been to chase away monkeys. Mahinder gives Anjani tips on how to become a better predator. The crucial skill is to produce three sounds: eeb, allay, ooo, which come from the pit of the stomach or possibly from some concealed cove in the depths of the human soul. It is these immense long-drawn-out guttural calls with which the film begins. They are animal-like and yet all too human. They could be sounds of deep anguish, akin to the howls of being caged. Or perhaps they express the very specific cries of an embodied freedom knowable only to workers such as Mahinder. They are open-ended openings into the lives of others.

It is simultaneously a film about faith in Southasia and its spectrum from reverence to irreverence, superstition, and devotion.

Mahinder conjures these sounds organically. Anjani tries repeatedly but fails. So instead, Anjani decides to improvise by using other techniques of predation. He imaginatively dons himself in a langur costume and puts up printouts and cut-outs of langur faces on fences and walls. But at each instance, his creativity is squashed. Even absurdity is governed by rules, rigidity and bureaucratic norms, and Anjani is asked by his supervisors to do his unconventional job through conventional means.
Animals and animality have offered artists, writers and filmmakers limitless resources for expressive possibility. The art critic, painter and poet John Berger asserted that "it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal." It is precisely this primordial figure of the monkey that allows for a cross-species allegory in which animal life embodies ideas about human life and vice-versa, and Vats consistently navigates between the allegorical and the real, at times blurring the line between the two.
The daily life of Delhi
In one sense, this is a film about Delhi's uneventful, mundane and yet appalling inequality. It reveals the anguish of being unemployed, the fundamental desire for dignified work, and the crushing pressures and internal churning not only to provide for one's household, for a child about to be born but also to live up to the towering expectations of family. It is simultaneously a film about faith in Southasia and its spectrum from reverence to irreverence, superstition, and devotion. We see the importance of respecting the monkey (god) despite their menacing disruptiveness, as well as the omnipotence of the monkey-raj, and ultimately the indispensability of both the monkey-god and the monkey-raj. From the film's soundscape to the obvious iconography of its locations – Lutyens' Delhi, Raisina Hill, the Republic Day parade, India Gate, to the bastis on the other side of the city – Vats is also telling the story of a city.
Apart from these bold signifiers, there are quieter moments in the film, which in their subtle and unassuming ways turn our conceptions of the mundane and the absurd upside down. One such example is a fleeting moment in the film when Anjani's brother-in-law, who works as a security guard, is given a rifle at work. We see him awkwardly attempt to hide his large and unwieldy rifle under his shawl on his commute back home. It turns out that his pregnant wife can't stand the sight of the rifle and wants it out of her view. He tries to find a place in their cramped home to hide this long firearm that insists on, quite literally, sticking out of each of its hiding spots. The security guard job with its accoutrements of adult toys seems equally comical as compared to the langur costume, and we are reminded of how we've normalised some absurdities. Suddenly we realise the utter bizarreness of so-called 'normal' jobs in everyday Delhi as compared to the obviously absurd job of chasing monkeys.

Even absurdity is governed by rules, rigidity and bureaucratic norms, and Anjani is asked by his supervisors to do his unconventional job through conventional means.

One of the lesser explored themes that the film provokes is in relation to the territories and spaces of dwelling of two distinct beings: humans and monkeys. Consider the following lines: "This is Raisina Hill [where India's most powerful leaders have offices and homes], traditionally ruled by monkeys! Even the courts acknowledge that." [Yeh Raisina road hai, Raisina road ilaaka hai, yahaan inheen bandaro ka parcham hai]. When Mahinder states that Raisina Hill has traditionally belonged to monkeys, is he insinuating that humans have encroached upon what used to originally be the habitat of monkeys? Perhaps the question is not who the "original" inhabitant is, that is, who got there first, or who "traditionally" belongs in a specific space, and who is pushed out. Instead, perhaps the film asks us to dwell on the terms of coexistence. In what ways might two antagonistic beings inhabit a space together?
Mahinder, while giving Anjani advice about how to scare the monkeys away, is telling him to become more like them and adopt their mannerisms. He says, "Why don't you become their leader? Think like them, live like them." and then a few sentences later, "Use your voice to scare them." These sentences reveal something rather unusual with regard to the terms of cohabitation: on one level, difference is acknowledged, and it seems impossible to enter and experience other minds and bodies. At another level, it feels possible to bridge the gap between these two beings, and for Anjani to both 'think' and 'live' like them. But ultimately, this intimate knowledge and Anjani's understanding of these monkeys is to allow him to become a better predator: to be able to "scare them." Perhaps this is a much more honest variation to a form of coexistence, one that relies not on friendship but on enmity.
The posturing of care
There is another man in the film who appears occasionally, someone who works among the other dignitaries predated on by the monkeys on Raisina Hill. This man, out of reverence to the monkeys and what they represent within Hinduism, gives the monkeys food to eat, much to the chagrin of the monkey chasers. He is showing a form of care. Or is he? As the film moves on, one realises how intimacy might, in fact, be much more deeply rooted in Mahinder, who is meant to chase these monkeys away, than this man who postures to care for them by feeding them. Might reverence be embodied in the former rather than the latter? Mahinder's job relies on an embodied set of skills and a knowledge of these monkeys obtained through time, and the labour of "living like them" and with them yet it is simultaneously characterised by predation, because ultimately Mahinder's and now Anjani's job is to try to scare away these monkeys. Predation, we see, can be a part of coexistence.

We realise the utter bizarreness of so-called 'normal' jobs in everyday Delhi as compared to the obviously absurd job of chasing monkeys.

The analogy that comes to mind is that of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) on the one hand and cattle herders on the other. Those who rear cattle, labour with them, know them intimately, occasionally also eat the meat of these cattle. On the other hand, the gau rakshaks want to protect the cow, and eating their meat is not just blasphemous, but they are willing to kill those who might consume the cow. However, rarely do they have any intimate relationship that is based on labour and the knowledge of "thinking and living" with the cow. Much like the man who feeds the monkeys, out of an abstract form of reverence, the gau rakshak's care feels akin to a posturing of care. Eeb Allay Ooo! reinscribes the relationships between the categories of what it means to be distant and proximate. How can one be a carer while also predating? It shows the ways in which in love and so called 'protection' there is in fact the deepest form of violence, a theme that anthropologist Radhika Govindarajan explores powerfully in her recent writings.
There is another question on territory, space and encroachment that the film explores. Those who do the work of chasing away these monkeys live on the very peripheries of Delhi, across train lines, making multiple crossings each day. The camera settles for many minutes, beleaguering the wait at train junctions, the time it takes for this passage and the distances between these spaces, of the slum dwelling of Anjani and the expansive stomping grounds of monkeys in Lutyens Delhi. From the boulevards and red stone facades of Raisina Hill where Anjani comes into work to the slum room in which he lives with his sister and brother-in-law, we see how interlopers – human and animal – inhabit different metonymic spaces in the city.

Animals and animality have offered artists, writers and filmmakers limitless resources for expressive possibility.

Anjani is meant to prey on the monkey as part of his job, but we see him being treated quite harshly at work, threatened to perform his job better, told by his employer that he'll be kicked out if he doesn't successfully shoo the monkeys away. He is scared himself, as he tries, but fails to be sufficiently scary for the monkeys. As viewers, we laugh, but it is unclear whom we are laughing at. The fear of the officer-goers, ministers and the residents of Raisina Hill, the monkeys' cheekiness, or the human-langur comical yet desperate Anjani? The film asks who is an interloper? Who are the predators? And could it be that some predators are being predated on? Migrants in most cities are dispensable, and even if Anjani acts for a few hours as the predator, he and others like him remain the quintessential prey.
Perhaps we are not laughing at but laughing with in the film. But it is unclear with whom we are laughing. Anjani is not laughing. He is terrified to lose his source of livelihood, a job he finds ridiculous but is obliged to do, puzzled by the monkey-raj of Raisina Hill, the animality in the human, and his need to be more human for the animal.
The film ends with yet again an opening: a jaloos or procession for the monkey-god Hanuman is passing by with dancers, many possessed, as one can become through the powers of these gods, and Anjani joins in on this dance. If you cannot scare them off, if you cannot become one with them, perhaps you just dance to their tunes. Worship them. Who exactly is the 'them' that one is worshipping? The animal monkey, the human monkey, the monkey god or the monkey job? Perhaps Eeb Alay Ooo! is a film that lays bare the force of the creaturely, a space that holds human life together with nonhuman life. Some, in spite of being human, are treated as lesser humans, and some half-humans are worshipped. Two beings can inhabit the same landscape and do so not as friends but instead as enemies. In Eeb Alay Ooo!, caste and class come into focus as much as the animality in humanity, revealing how predation can be deeply imbricated in coexistence.
Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian