The Rat Race: Documentaries in the Multiplex

From 2008, when it was first launched, the Indian Premier League has kept A-list movies out of cinema halls for the duration of the seasonal Twenty20 tournament. This is bad news for Bollywood fans, but good news for small-budget productions, especially, as it turns out this fortnight, documentary filmmakers. Among the lesserknown titles rushing into the movie halls this fortnight to fill in the slots vacated by the biggies is The Rat Race, Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s film about rat killers in Mumbai.

The Rat Race will be screened at select shows at multiplexes run by PVR and Big Cinemas from April 20. The Rat Race is only the third independently produced documentary after Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace and Madhusree Dutta’s Seven Islands and a Metro to be shown at a multiplex. There is a vast and vibrant culture of documentary screenings across India – but not in theatres. Documentaries can be watched at cultural centres, on television (NDTV24x7 and Doordarshan) and during festivals. DVDs can be purchased in stores or on the internet. Yet, theatrical distribution remains by and large elusive for documentaries, due to a perception that they are too serious-minded or politically tilted to be viewer-friendly and, ultimately, lucrative.

Menacherry said she owed The Rat Race’s good fortune to a forum called Trigger Pitch that was held at the International Film Festival of Kerala in December. Trigger Pitch invited distributors and funders to share a stage with filmmakers. Among those present were Prakhar Joshi from PVR and Jeewan Joshi from Big, both of whom decided to take a chance with the potentially interesting subject: who are the people who keep Mumbai’s streets rat-free – and how do they do it?

“There is a certain kind of audience that we want to tap – corporate employees, educated folks,” Prakhar Joshi said. “The documentary has humour, which always works. Serious documentaries bore people. This film seemed ideal.”

PVR has never shown a fulllength documentary before, a fact that is also making Menacherry somewhat nervous. “It is new and exciting but it also is intimidating,” she said. “I feel that the film will go down well with audiences, but I wasn’t confident that it would go into theatres.”

If The Rat Race succeeds in holding its own against the week’s other releases, it could well open the doors for other documentaries. “It’s great news” about The Rat Race but it’s too early to reach for the champagne, cautioned Gargi Sen, a documentary producer and the founder of Magic Lantern Foundation. Sen’s organisation has unsuccessfully tried in the past to reach multiplexes. Several of MLF’s titles turn over current topics and political issues, which makes them relevant to viewers but not necessarily attractive to exhibitors. Single screen theatres are even more reluctant than multiplexes to show documentaries because they’re burdened by a government diktat to screen titles churned out by the state-run Films Division, Sen pointed out. Multiplexes have other compulsions: their operating costs are so high that they automatically gravitate towards commercial fare. “Multiplexes are like malls, where you shop for cinema,” Sen said. “But if you want to choose Fried Fish, Chicken Soup and a Premiere Show [the documentary about Manipuri cinema] over Agent Vinod, is that choice available?”

MLF gets its films out through other means: it organises a festival in Delhi every year, holds screenings and distributes documentaries on DVD. It’s crucial to nurture audiences and networks, said Sen. “The market had no imagination,” Sen said. “They’ll risk losses for Agent Vinod, but not for my films. I will have to create a capital base to be able to underwrite losses.”

Already, Menacherry has had to invest her own money in promoting her documentary's release. She was greatly encouraged by the response the Rs 30-lakh production got at the Mumbai International Film Festival for documentaries in February. “The laughter caught on, and the massy action really worked,” she said.

Menacherry had to overcome her horror of rodents to make The Rat Race, which follows the efforts of a municipal corporation employee and his underpaid squad to keep order on the city’s streets. “I am really, really phobic of rats,” she said. “When I was studying at Jamia Milia Islamia University, I changed my hostel room because rats would visit every night.”

However, a newspaper report about 2,000 people applying for 30 vacant posts of rat killers in Mumbai caught her eye. She then met a supervisor of the municipal B ward, a Parsi gent who took immense pride in his work. The Rat Race is about Behram Harda as well as about the men, many of them well educated, who prowl the streets of Mumbai night after night to slay the rodents with deadly blows from their wooden sticks.

Talking to Harda was easy, but many of the rat stalkers were uncomfortable with being interviewed. The bigger question was: how do you shoot dead rodents tastefully? “I did get asked whether I had to have so many dead rats in the film,” Menacherry said. “But I can’t be icky about the subject.”
Nandini Ramnath
TimeOut Mumbai
13 April 2012
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