In a stunning shot in Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo!, which played at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, a man runs around a street corner in Lutyens' Delhi dressed in a langur costume, his long tail swinging behind him. Monkeys scatter up the fences and trees. Shardul Bhardwaj, the actor inside that costume, slipped into the skin of trainee monkey repeller Anjani, a migrant who lands this job in Delhi.
Bhardwaj was recently seen as the auto-rickshaw driver Rafique in Chaand Mubarak, the short film directed by Nitya Mehra in the Unpaused anthology. He is soon to start filming a web series. The 28-year-old graduate from Kirori Mal College, Delhi and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, who is now based in Mumbai, talks about learning the tricks of the trade—including the monkey repellers' chant that gives the film its title—to deliver an authentic performance in Eeb Allay Ooo, which is coming to Netflix this week.
Was there a long period of preparation to get into the skin of the character, including learning the chant 'eeb allay ooo'?
Before arriving in Delhi, Prateek Vats, Shubham (writer) and I spoke a lot about how we would go about the shoot, what kind of flexibility this project needed, because we were shooting in real locations with a limited crew on set so there had to be complete flexibility and no one person could think they were just doing one job. I had to wear Anjani’s costume and stay in it to prepare for the role. That helped a lot. But I don’t look at it as "skin of a character". At the end of the day, I am playing a version of myself with some research put in here and there.
The only effort was not to impose things, like picking up a walk or a talk, on the character. We wanted to spend as much time in the field as possible. We had Mahender to guide us and we had a location with its ecosystem of shops, people. That area is also a big character in the film.
How did the costume help with the character?
Since I am from Delhi, I thought I knew Delhi, but the moment I wore Anjani’s costume, people’s gaze changed. And then even though you consider yourself liberated, you don’t want to be looked upon as someone beneath your station in life. That being looked down upon was something I could use. I can’t say I can feel what a migrant goes through in a metropolis on a daily basis, but spending time in that area, with Mahender, in those clothes, really helped with Anjani.
Then, wearing the langur costume, with people looking at me—that gave the actor in me an impetus to perform. But Anjani’s feelings are my feelings. They are in the script and based on what my director tells me and where we want to take it. It’s a crafted performance.
Even for Rafique (in Chaand Mubarak), learning to drive the auto-rickshaw was the skill, but spending time with the gentleman who was teaching me, talking about things unrelated to the film and watching him go about his day was what might have done something for my performance.
Was Mahender Nath (who plays himself in the film) the primary source for an understanding of that world?
He was not just the source for an understanding of that world, but I also had his protection. Beyond the monkeys, these are VVIP houses (of judges and MPs) and as his trainee I got access to them. Staying in the field does a lot for the material.
Mahender is also a brilliant performer. That process of saying "eeb aallay ooo" is a performance. People watch him. Many people have come and shot films there before. There were other monkey repellers we tapped into, but Mahender was the primary source. Seven generations from his family have worked with langurs and though we may think of it as unskilled, it is a highly skilled job.
How did you learn the call?
I learnt it by mimicking Mahender and by listening to recordings. So it was there in the head. But these sounds are very difficult.
Were there any unexpected moments with the monkeys?
Always. When people described fear in 19th century literature they wrote of how the body started shivering, and water dripped into the eyes. That happened. I was not crying, but when I was surrounded by monkeys, there would be tears. Luckily I was practical and instead of calling out to my mother or father, I would call to Shubham or Mahender for help.
The scene at the beginning, when he is teaching me, when he walks down with the cycle and makes that sound, they scurry off because that part of Lutyens has been his area for years and the monkeys know him.
Is Anjani an outsider whose sanity and humanity are challenged by the need for survival?
There was a deliberate effort to not create unnecessary sympathy for Anjani. To create sympathy is not a great position to have, according to me. For me, as an actor, what matters is that here is a guy who wants to survive. He has nothing back home. This job has been thrust upon him. That is the plight of so many. For example, who wants to lug bricks in the baking heat? I am paraphrasing, but John Berger wrote in an essay that the working class is always found guilty of surviving. That’s what it is.
You have explored the condition of being a migrant worker in a big city in both ‘Eeb Aallay Ooo!’ and ‘Chaand Mubarak’. How were they different and how were they similar?
They are more unlike than similar. The moment we talk of migrants, we tend to club them into a group. That's not right. Rafique owns an auto and has chosen this job, within the sociopolitical circumstances and the choices available to him. The way Rafique looks at himself is quite different from how Anjani sees himself.
Anjani is ashamed of what he does. He doesn't want people to know he is shooing away monkeys in a big city whereas Rafique sees himself as an entrepreneur. Anjani has a house to go back to. Rafique sleeps in his auto. But that little bit of control over your livelihood makes all the difference between both the characters.
As a graduate of a public institution and as a creative person, what do you feel about the limitations being imposed on public institutions and the curbing of freedom of expression?
When I was in school I spent most of my time hiding my opinion from my elders. They were well meaning, and were trying to tell me what they thought was right for me. Schools, especially private schools, are the biggest breeding grounds for people to mimic each other and toe the line. I used to think having an opinion and expressing it is a bad thing. Then I went to Delhi University, I started doing theatre and then I went to FTII.
I think kids should learn questioning, as should parents. That is the legacy of these public institutions. I have not figured it all out, but I think I am in a better place in terms of holding an opinion and most importantly, questioning not just the world but also my own self.
'Eeb Aallay Ooo streams on Netflix from 18 February.