Three years ago, when documentary filmmaker Miriam Chandy Menacherry came across a newspaper clipping calling for applications to be a part of Brihanmumbai Muncipal Corporation’s (BMC) rat-killing squad, she was intrigued. Upon further investigation, she learnt that almost 2,000 people had applied in response to the ad. Most of the applicants were well-educated and had to undergo a recruitment process and training for the job. This prompted her to make a documentary on the hitherto-unknown pied pipers of Mumbai who set out every night, armed with sticks, to kill rodents.
Titled The Rat Race, the documentary was filmed over two years, and won the prestigious MIPDoc Co-production Challenge at Cannes in 2010. It was also screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. It has now been released commercially in multiplexes such as PVR and Big Cinemas in Mumbai from April 20.
The movie was handpicked for a theatrical release by the multiplexes from among six other documentaries after it was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala last December. An ecstatic Menacherry says, “I’m really excited about the theatrical release. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hope that the audience will like the film. I wish that my movie paves the way for other documentaries to be accessed by a larger audience.”
Menacherry, who has earlier helmed award-winning documentaries for BBC and the National Geographic Channel, explains that her film uses members of the rat-killing squad as a metaphor. They represent lakhs of people who come to Mumbai every year to fulfil their dreams but have to eventually settle for something else. In fact, The Rat Race’s protagonist Behram Harda, a Parsi supervisor of the squad, is one such example. He dreamt of becoming a Bollywood superstar but had to become a BMC employee instead, on his father’s insistence. “Initially we started shooting with Harda and a rat-killer. But during the course of filming, six people were inducted into the squad, so we decided to shoot the recruitment process. Most of them are part of the squad to earn money and pursue further studies.”
Menacherry has infused dark comedy into a grim subject, which attributes to Harda’s quirky sense of humour. She adds, “He likens himself to James Bond as he, too, has a licence to kill. Though Harda was co-operative, it took some time for the other members to get comfortable with the idea of being filmed.” She says, “Harda was excited because, finally, his dream of seeing himself on the big screen would be realised. But the other members were embarrassed about their job. I had to convince them that we had their best interests at heart. Later, I also called them to see the rough cut of the movie.”
Now when Menacherry looks back, she admits that building a rapport with the squad members was easy as compared to the other challenges she had to face. She confesses, “Initially, when I approached the BMC officials to seek their permission for my film, they were taken aback. My letter was pending with them for a year. Later, my crew was beaten up twice while we were filming at public places.” She confesses that the film was also a victim of state censorship. “The rats’ dead bodies are disposed at the Deonar dumping ground. But we were unable to document that part as we were denied permission.”
Apart from enjoying her movie’s run at multiplexes, Menacherry is now focusing on her next project — an Indo-Pak co-production. It is a young, energetic subject that will cater to the youth. Ask her by when she intends to wrap it up and she laughs, “I have learnt a lesson — that documentaries are not in your control. When I started filming The Rat Race, I thought I would finish it within six months. But it took me two years.”