First take | Barah x Barah, Eeb Allay Ooo and Mail: Three Sidelined Masterpieces About Life on the Margins
At a time when soggy sagas stretch lazily into 10-hour episodes for no other reason than an extravagant budget, it’s good to see filmmakers counting their pennies. Corruption comes with wealth.
There’s something to be said for conscientious filmmakers on tight budgets. They understand the need for economy as well as their characters. This is why, when conscientious filmmakers have unlimited budgets to shoot, they go haywire: Shyam Benegal in Zubeida, Govind Nihalani in Developer, and Ketan Mehta in Mangal Pandey: The Rise are prime examples of this excess murder syndrome.
This is why I wish Gaurav Madan, Prateek Vats and Uday Gurrala the directors of Barah x Barah, Eeb Allay Ooo, and To post will never get more money than the shoestring budget given to their first feature films.
At Gaurav Madan Barah x Barah is a moving saga of mortality and memory. Like the Ganges splashing against the eroded banks of Varanasi, this precious little film with a big heart captures the undulating rhythms of life with a subtlety so subtle it almost misses the point: there is no meaning to life. ; we live, we die. We sometimes leave a legacy behind us, like Lata Mangeshkar would. Most of us die unsung. Forgotten and thrown into anonymity in no time. Rama Naam Satya hai. Barah x Barah, a remarkably tender, subtle and unostentatious debut film from director Gaurav Madan (who has a few striking shorts to his credit before this impressive feature), captures the essence, the nullity of existence in images and banal dialogues. The characters, their homes, their lives, and their words have a soothing, realistic feel and texture, as if the director forgot to shout “cut” and the actors continued to live the lives assigned to them by the script. There is an apathetic continuity in the lives of the characters.
No fancy music, no lingering lens defines these lives. They are what they are. The look and feel of authenticity doesn’t jump out at us in complacency. Instead, director Gaurav Madan travels through Varanasi to find out what the “ghat” is. I feel like the actors (who look extremely oblivious to the camera) spent a lot of time in Varanasi before shooting. To look so naturalized, you have to be part of Varanasi’s complex cosmopolitan culture. Madan never lets the narrative forget the ubiquitous presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His voice floats towards us from the thundering television sets and politics is never far from the range of topics covered by the characters, although the hero Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi) is seemingly apolitical and entirely absorbed in the task. to support his family: a sick father (brilliantly played by Harish Khanna, the protagonist of Pavan Kaul’s pretentious first film, Tathagata), a wife Meena (Bhumika Dubey, so natural that she makes the camera look like an intruder) and their grandson. Later, this small, silently struggling family is joined by Sooraj’s sister, Mansi (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), who has moved to Delhi, a betrayal the father has never quite forgiven her for. None of this is said. Most Hindi movies make the mistake of overstating their case. Not this one. As in most middle-class families, very little emotional energy is expressed. Everything is to be understood. Sooraj’s unintellectual and pointless gaze at the corpses he photographs is punctuated every now and then by his wife’s apt rebuke. “Instead of clicking on dead people, why don’t you try clicking on living people?” Sooraj is a faithful and grateful husband who admits to marrying a “superwoman”. The film is about all those faceless people in bustling cities who toil from morning till night without any hope or expectation of reward. Making a movie as bright and quiet as Barah x Barah is just as thankless. Those who participate do not do so for glory. There is an uncelebrated tragedy at the heart of lives lived on the periphery. Gaurav Madan’s thin, noiseless film understands the human tragedy of darkness.
The very strangely titled Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo talks about the threat of monkeys in parts of Delhi where Sarkari Babus dominates the scene and those miserable ground workers who are hired as monkey repellents. Why anyone would want to make a movie about something so esoteric is a question for those looking into adventurous spirits. You have to be reckless or daring or both to attempt something so unconventional and culturally specific. Clearly, director Prateek Vats belongs to that rare breed of overshoots who aren’t afraid to fall on their faces as they reach for the stars. And by stars, I don’t mean the Khans and the Kapoors. Luckily, Eeb Allay Ooo manages to stay buoyant despite its bizarre cultural specificity. It’s a slice of life of a reluctant monkey repellent, played with extraordinary sensitivity and rare understanding of personality characterization and momentum by Sharadul Bharadwaj who has recently been seen as the autorickshaw’s companion by Ratna Pathak Shah in Unpaused. Bharadwaj belongs to that rare breed of actors who sublimate their own personalities and are so immersed in their characters that one can never recognize the actor when he is not on screen. So before we ask the real Bharadwaj to stand up, shall we pause to consider the exceptional realism in how Bharadwaj’s Bihari migrant character Anjani Prasad interacts at home (a seedy airless chawl) and at the job where he needs to scare the monkeys but ends up scaring his job. It’s a miserable life. Shubham’s writing is so immersed in the immediacy of life that there is no pausing to sentimentalise Anjani’s desperately poor life. While the plot’s backdrop is downright sordid, there’s never room to revel in that misery. Eeb Aalay Ooo (the sounds used to intimidate monkeys) is exceptionally stripped of conventional cinematic props. The background music is used sparingly and the sound design (Bigyna Bhushan Dahal) is such that you hear much more than is relevant to the scenes. Like so much else in this masterful unassuming study of the misery of low-income people, the sound and cinematography (Saumyananda Sahi) are just there. You might not notice them like you do with the masterful craftsmanship of other important movies. It’s only because nothing is done here for effect. Everything unfolds like a documentary. The only time you see the director’s tight control over the narrative is when Anjani is with his best friend and colleague Mahender. Anjani’s bond with her pregnant sister (Nutan Sinha) and her best friend are tenderly drawn into the hustle and bustle of a town that cares for no one but accepts everything.
There is a dramatic bearing towards the end that changes the mood from everyday to surreal. Don’t let that shake you. Eeb Allay Ooo does not mean frighten. He just wants to gently but convincingly remind us of those who exist outside of our field of vision. Monkey Pacifiers are much smarter and more cautious than those who employ them. Their time will come. Until then, there is this movie.
At Uday Gurrala To post in Telugu (the other two films are in Hindi) is a charming look at the naive innocence of the villagers of Kambalapally in Telangana, where the computer has just arrived. The curiosity bordering on reverence of 18-year-old Ravi (newcomer Harshith Malgireddy) is not only amusing but also deeply moving if you’re a sucker for rustic innocence (which no longer exists).
The cleverly written script sweeps away all misconceptions about the computer: the only man in the village who owns a computer believes that any shoe in the sacred room housing the precious sacred digital deity can cause a virus. The computer becomes the pivot of an unusual but subtle humour, never wild, always tender. In one of many clever sequences, Ravi panics when the computer beeps to stop, and he doesn’t know where to find the electrical outlet to control the impending doom.
Such seemingly insignificant moments imbue the narrative with a sense of naive wonder, without becoming overly cute. There is an aura of restrained satire in the presentation. Never exaggerated, but always targeted. In the way the dishonest drama is delicately decorated with nuanced humor, the presentation reminded me of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days.
It could well be the Mail-gudi Days. And Harshith Malgireddy might just be Narayan’s common man in his youth. The new talent is really charming. While Malgireddy is every inch the curious techno-ignorant, Manu Segurla as Ravi’s best friend is even better. Segurla’s casual causticity and biting sarcasm will kill you. If not, then he’s someone you don’t want to meet, especially if you can’t lend him money.
The writing is clear on the growl. The humor is acerbic and hard-hitting, but never rushed to hit the punchline. It has to be one of the best written comedies in Indian cinema of all time. There is only one fatal flaw. Characters are displayed using Gmail. There was no Gmail in the early years of the computer. That aside, Mail is a shining example of how a film about popular innocence can be fun if the heart is in the right place. The art follows. I can’t wait to see what the rookie director does next. And where is the next movie in the Kambalapally Kathalu series?
All three films take us back to the simple, unassuming narrative conventions of Satyajit Ray. Pather Panchali, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, and Satyen Bose Jagriti. At a time when soggy sagas stretch lazily into 10-hour episodes for no other reason than an extravagant budget, it’s good to see filmmakers counting their pennies. Corruption comes with wealth.
Subhash K Jha is a journalist based in Patna. He’s been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.