First Take Barah x Barah, Eeb Allay Ooo, and Mail

In an era when soggy sagas stretch themselves lazily into 10 episodes of 10 hours for no reason except an extravagant budget, it feels good to see filmmakers counting their pennies. Corruption comes with affluence.

There is something to be said about conscientious filmmakers with tight budgets. They understand the need for the economy as well as their characters do. This is why when conscientious filmmakers are given unlimited budgets to shoot they go haywire: Shyam Benegal in Zubeida, Govind Nihalani in Dev, and Ketan Mehta in Mangal Pandey: The Rising are prime examples of this murder-by-excess syndrome.

This is why I wish Gaurav Madan, Prateek Vats, and Uday Gurrala the directors of Barah x Barah, Eeb Allay Ooo, and Mail never get more money than the shoestring budget given to their maiden feature films.

Gaurav Madan’s Barah x Barah is a moving gently nudging saga of mortality and memory. Like the Ganga splashing against the eroding river banks of Varanasi, this precious little film with a big heart captures the undulating rhythms of life with such subtle seamlessness, we almost miss the point: there is no point to life; we live, we die. We sometimes leave a legacy behind, as Lata Mangeshkar would. Most of us die unsung. Forgotten and flung to anonymity in no time at all. Rama Naam Satya hai. Barah x Barah, a remarkably tender subtle, and unostentatious debut by director Gaurav Madan (who has some striking short films to his credit before this impressive feature film), captures the essence, the nullity of existence in mundane images and dialogues. The characters, their homes, lives, and words have an assuaging life-like feel and texture as if the director forgot to yell ‘cut’ and the actors continued to live the lives assigned to them by the script. There is a listless continuity to the lives led by the characters.

No fancy music, no lingering lenses define these lives. They are who they are. The look and texture of authenticity do not leap at us in any self-congratulatory motions. Rather, director Gaurav Madan roams Varanasi to know what it is ‘ghat’. I have ghat-feeling that the actors (who look supremely oblivious to the camera) spent considerable time in Varanasi before shooting. To look so naturalized one has to be a part of Varanasi’s complex cosmopolitan culture. Madan never lets the narrative forget PM Narendra Modi’s ubiquitous presence. His voice floats out at us from blaring television sets and politics never far away from the characters’ range of topics, though the hero Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi) is outwardly apolitical and wholly taken up with the task of making a living for his family: an ailing father(brilliantly played by Harish Khanna the protagonist of Pavan Kaul’s pretentious directorial debut Tathagata), a silently supportive wife Meena (Bhumika Dubey, so natural she makes the camera seem like an intruder) and their little son. Later this small silently struggling family is joined by Sooraj’s sister Mansi (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) who has moved to Delhi, a betrayal for which the father has never quite forgiven her. None of this is spoken. Most Hindi films 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 non-intellectual unprofitable gaze at the corpses he photographs is punctuated once in while by his wife’s pertinent chiding. “Instead of clicking dead people why don’t you try clicking living people?” Sooraj is a loyal loving appreciative husband who admits he married a ‘superwoman’. The film talks about all those faceless people in bustling towns who toil from morning to night without any hope or expectation of a reward. Making a film as noiselessly brilliant as Barah x Barah is just as thankless. Those who are in it are not doing it for fame. There is an uncelebrated tragedy at the heart of lives lived on the edge. Gaurav Madan’s slim flab-free noiseless film understands the human tragedy of obscurity.

The very strangely titled Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo is about the monkey menace in parts of Delhi where Sarkari Babus dominate the scene and those wretched ground-level workers who are hired as monkey repellers. Just why anyone would want to make a film on something so esoteric is a question for those who examine adventurous minds. You either have to be foolhardy or audacious or both to attempt something so unconventional and culturally specific. Clearly, director Prateek Vats belongs to that rare breed of over-reachers who don’t mind falling on his faces while reaching for the stars. And by stars, I don’t mean the Khans and Kapoors. Luckily Eeb Allay Ooo succeeds in staying float despite its bizarre cultural specificity. It is a slice-of-life tale of a reluctant monkey repeller, played with extraordinary sensitivity and rare understanding of characterization and personality-momentum by Sharadul Bharadwaj who was lately seen as Ratna Pathak Shah’s autorickshaw companion in Unpaused. Bharadwaj belongs among that rare breed of actors who sublimate their own personalities and are so submerged in their characters that we can never recognize the actor when he is not on the screen. So before I ask the real Bharadwaj to stand up, shall we pause to consider the exceptional realism in the way Bharadwaj’s Bihari migrant Anjani Prasad’s character interacts at home(a seedy airless chawl) and at work where he needs to scare monkeys away but ends up scaring his job away. It’s a wretched life. The writing by Shubham is so immersed in the immediacy of living that there is no pause to sentimentalize Anjani’s desperately poor life. While the backdrop of the plot is squarely squalid, there is never any room to revel in that squalor. Eeb Aalay Ooo(the sounds used to intimidate monkeys) is exceptionally freed of conventional cinematic props. The background music is used sparingly, and the sound design (Bigyna Bhushan Dahal) is such that we hear much more than just what is relevant to the scenes. Like much else in this unassumingly masterly study of lower-income destitution, the sound and the cinematography (Saumyananda Sahi) are simply there. You may not notice them the way you do the masterly craftsmanship in other important films. That’s only because nothing is here done for effect. It all flows 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 his pregnant sister (Nutan Sinha) and his bestie are tenderly drawn into the hustle-bustle of a town that cares for none but accepts all.

There is a dramatic incidence towards the end that changes the mood from workaday to surreal. Don’t let that shake you up. Eeb Allay Ooo doesn’t mean to startle. It just wants to remind us gently but persuasively of those who exist outside our range of vision. The monkey pacifiers are far more clever and cautious than those employing them. Their time will come. Until then there is this film.

Uday Gurrala’s Mail in Telugu (the other two films are in Hindi) is a charming gaze at the artless innocence of villagers in Kambalapally in Telangana where the computer has just come. The curiosity bordering on the reverence of 18-year old Ravi(newcomer Harshith Malgireddy) is not only amusing but also deeply moving if you are a sucker for rustic innocence(which no longer exists).

The intelligently-written script takes slurping swipes at all the inceptive misconceptions about the computer: the only man in the village who owns a computer believes that any footwear in the sacred room housing the precious sacred digital deity can cause a virus. The computer becomes the fulcrum of some outstanding but subtle humour, never savage always tender. In one of the many casually canny sequences, Ravi panics when the computer signals a switch-off beep, and he doesn’t know where to find the electrical outlet to control the impending catastrophe.

Such ostensibly trivial moments imbue the narrative with a sense of artless wonder, without becoming excessively cute. There is an aura of restraint about the satire in the presentation. Never overdone, but always on-target. In the manner in which the disingenuous drama is decorated delicately with shaded humour, the presentation reminded me of R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days.

This could well be Mail-gudi Days. And Harshith Malgireddy could well be Narayan’s Common Man in his youth. The fresh talent is truly charming. While Malgireddy is every inch the inquisitive techno-ignoramus, Manu Segurla as Ravi’s best friend is even better. Segurla’s casual causticity and biting sarcasm will kill you. If not, then he is someone you don’t want to run into, especially if you are in no position to lend him money.

The writing is clear on the growl. The humour is acerbic and bang-on, but never in a hurry to get to the punchline. This must be one of the best-written comedies of Indian cinema of all time. There is just one fatal flaw. The characters are shown using Gmail. There was no Gmail in the inceptive years of the computer. That apart, Mail is a sparkling example of how amusing a film on grassroots innocence can be if the heart is in the right place. The art just follows. I can’t wait to see what the debutant director does next. And where is the next film in the Kambalapally Kathalu series?

The three films take us back to the simple unassuming narrative conventions of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, and Satyen Bose’s Jagriti. In an era when soggy sagas stretch themselves lazily into 10 episodes of 10 hours for no reason except an extravagant budget, it feels good to see filmmakers counting their pennies. Corruption comes with affluence.

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