Finishing the Rat Race

Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s documentary on Mumbai’s night rat killers to release theatrically on April 20.
The Rat Race, a film that reveals an intriguing facet of Mumbai, is going to hit city theatres soon. Yet another film about the city, some might wonder.

The Rat Race is special for two reasons. First, it is a sensitive as well as funny portrayal of a workforce that remains unacknowledged yet integral to life in the city. It is about a community that springs into action when the city goes deep in slumber–the pied pipers of Mumbai.

Besides, it is the second documentary in recent time after Jaideep Varma’s Leaving Home in 2010 to make its way to the big screen.

The release of Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s The Rat Race was facilitated by a unique initiative called ‘The Trigger Pitch’ which was held for the first time in December 2011 along with the International Film Festival of Kerala. The IDF (Indian Documentary Foundation) supported by actor Jaaved Jaafery invited six just-completed documentaries to be pitched to potential corporate partners.

Menacherry met PVR and Big Cinema representatives to discuss the potential of a theatrical release in December 2011, but what gave her the confidence to release the film was the response at Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) 2012 where the film played to a packed house and thunderous applause.

On April 20, The Rat Race will open in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore simultaneously. In Mumbai, the film will screen at Big Cinemas Ghatkopar and PVR Juhu. ‘I have my fingers crossed that people will tear themselves away from IPL and come to watch a film about their city,’ says Menacherry.

The germ of the idea came to her from a small newspaper clipping about 2000 applicants auditioning for 30 vacant posts for rat killers in Mumbai. ‘The news article was not enough incentive to make a film about rats as I am terrified of them.’

‘It is when I met the people who are in my film, the real life characters who were well educated and had fantastic dreams that they nurtured while they continued with their grisly job as rat killers that I began to see a bigger story emerge,’ Menacherry says.

The Parsi gentleman who takes center stage in her film compares himself with James Bond–with a license to kill. He who dispassionately counts rat carcasses and keeps calligraphed records of dead rats, wanted to be a dancer. Menacherry was convinced that she had a compelling story which would be disturbing and replete with dark humour at the same time.

‘This was a job that happened whilst the rest of the city slept, so every scene would be something no one had witnessed,’ she says.

She initially funded the film herself. Then Cannes co-production challenge came along in 2010. Though Menacherry sent her proposal after the deadline, it turned out to be one of the six short-listed proposals for documentaries. But she was skeptical. ‘I kept thinking, I have such a local story and such dark, grainy images captured at night and the other proposals have these stunning crisp, high quality visuals with global themes.’

However, her doubts melted away when she heard the hall echo with laughter after she presented the trailer of her documentary. The Jury loved the story and characters and The Rat Race won the co-production challenge in Cannes.

But Menacherry came back to Mumbai with a big win, a lot of press and no money! ‘I thought this would open the flood gates and I would have many producers on board…but this is not what happened.’ She blames it on the recession in 2010 and her inexperience in brokering international deals.

She then resorted to crowd funding which was a success owing to the credibility the project had gained after Cannes. Family and friends contributed for the project and film professionals pooled in their skills free of cost. This enabled her to edit a longer rough cut and apply for funds. In 2011, The Rat Race was supported by the Jan Vrijman Fund in Amsterdam, a fund for documentary filmmakers in developing countries.

Funding was just one of the challenges that Menacherry faced in completing the film. The BMC initially refused to give permission to shoot with the rat killers. ‘They had never got a request like this and really did not know how to process it,’ she says. Despite getting official BMC permission a year later, her crew faced many difficulties shooting in public spaces and garbage filled bylanes at odd hours in the night.

The crew got roughed up twice while shooting and their footage was deleted. ‘When the rat killers tell me how they often get mistaken for thieves and beaten up…I understand their predicament,’ Menacherry says.

They faced severe resistance in trying to shoot garbage dumps in the city. She was refused permission twice to shoot at Deonar, the largest dumping ground in Mumbai. ‘I hear the ground is a minefield of many illegal activities and lumpen elements that no one wants exposed. Now I feel I should have filed a PIL,’ Menacherry says.

The other challenge in the film for her was to win the trust and confidence of the rat killers, which came about gradually. ‘Showing them footage and cuts helped them to understand we had their interests in mind…Only 1 year after shooting with one of the rat killers did he  reveal that he is a post graduate in history,’ she says. The film was completed in 2 years.
Menacherry, who has been running her production house ‘Filament Pictures’ for seven years thinks it is a very exciting time to be an Indian documentary filmmaker.  ‘We always had interesting stories to tell…but now I think the international community is interested in hearing them simply because of the power India commands today. So there is the potential of international co productions and sales,’ she says.
Nandini Dutta
Dear Cinema
7 April 2012
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