The Rat Race
The idea of living a life with dreams unfulfilled is perhaps a notion that haunts us all. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had the courage, belief and trust in the world to dream big – to paint big dreams and want more than anything to fly into them, looking only straight ahead – never looking back, never looking down. Sadly, at times these flighty dreams are positioned on a direct collision course with the lives we evolved humans have created for ourselves– lives where making money is a prerequisite to survival and success, an urban reality where dreams often take a back burner to simply generating the income needed to feed one’s stomach and just…get by.
Behram Harda wanted to make it as a dancer in Bollywood. He came to Bombay starry eyed and with dreams as big as his bank balance was low. Little did he know that he would soon be joining a fraternity of a slightly less glamorous nature – a fraternity of rat killers – whose very raison d’etre was to rid Mumbai’s streets of these disease carrying little critters. Not quite the glitzy Bollywood life that Behran had once dreamt of.
But then again, the universe also teaches us never to stop dreaming. The stars had a little something up their cosmic sleeves for Behram.
Enter: filmmaker Miriam Chandy Menacherry.
“I began my career as a journalist so I am used to making clippings of articles that intrigue me”, says Miriam, “I came across in the paper one day an article about how the Municipal Corporation was conducting auditions for rat killers in Mumbai as more than 2000 candidates had applied for just 30 vacant posts. I was astounded by the figures and could not imagine what auditions could be conducted for rat killers! Further, when I realized that most of the candidates were graduates and post graduates who wanted to moonlight as rat killers I felt strongly there was a much larger story about Mumbai – the city of dreams – and the people who landed up in the city walking the tightrope between their reality and their dreams”.
Miriam’s initial intrigue would soon lead to an award winning critically acclaimed documentary – The Rat Race, released in 2012 – in which Behram is the star, the hero one might say. “I took a trip to one of the wards where I met Behram Harda, a Parsi supervisor who wanted to be a dancer in the film industry but ended up supervising the counting of dead rats”, Mia continues, “he had reconciled himself by comparing himself to James Bond with `a license to kill’. His humour and pride in the job made me sure that he would be a great narrator to an otherwise dark subject.”
The film, which documents Mumbai city’s community of rat killers through the eyes of Behram, has traveled to over 13 national and international film festivals, has been screened in India and all around the world, and has won top awards in Florence, Kerala, two by the Indian Documentary Producers Association and even an award at the highly prestigious Cannes festival.
As it turned out, Behram did get to see himself on the big screen after all. “When the documentary released in theatres, my protagonist Behram Harda’s dream came true!” laughs Miriam.
Miriam herself has directed films for National Geographic, set up her own independent production house Filament Pictures in Mumbai, and is now directing independent documentaries and gaining much recognition from the international and national indie film communities. I spoke more with Mia – as she’s affectionately called – about her film, her approach to independent cinema, and her own dreams.
Nirupama: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s actually like, on the ground, shooting at some of the ‘less then glamorous’ locations for a film like The Rat Race?
Miriam: Well my family was concerned that I would be shooting all night on the streets – as the rat killer’s work begins at midnight when the city sleeps – but it actually worked out well ’cause I would shoot all night and crawl back home after the rat count that happened at 7am, and be just in time to send my son off to school! The year before, I had actually visited the Karni Mata temple in Rajasthan dedicated to rats. I was so nervous I stood outside the door (as I could see swarms of rats). Little did I know that the very next year I would embark on a documentary over two years that would have me chasing rats…
Nirupama: When constructing the way your film is narrated – what approach do you apply to documentary storytelling, and why?
Miriam: I think the story is critical. There needs to be engaging characters, a strong narrative with a dramatic arc that keeps the audience engaged. More and more this form of creative documentary truly blurs the line between fact and fiction and simply draws the audience into a powerful viewing experience, a world they have not experienced. I believe in strong and honest visuals and all the research done creates layers to the people in the film and the issues they face – but I like it to unfold naturally and simply over a long period of time. Most of my films have been shot over one or two years to get the material I need for a good edit.
Nirupama: Can you tell me about your experiences – directing documentaries for television channels, versus directing them independently?
Miriam: When one directs for a channel one is very conscious of the format or the brand the channel stands for, and to some extent one tends to fall back on already existing structures or using too many voice overs to guide the narrative because that is what one sees on most documentary channels. I have made documentaries like these and whilst the story was good, I think it was the `voice’ of the channel. I think I experimented a lot more with form when I made The Rat Race independently, I was more open and playful both during shooting and editing…I completely avoided voice overs and I think in the end I found my own voice. The channels who acquired my film bought into the story and narrative style after I had struggled with it…and reached a form that I felt worked.
Nirupama: Tell me about the Cannes experience?
Miriam: I had only shot a trailer when I applied to the Mipdoc Co production challenge at Cannes, a small but prestigious forum to spot documentary talent. I honestly thought the story of Mumbai’s rat killers was very local. I sent in my submission a little after the deadline. Surprisingly the deadline was extended, my film was one of the 6 chosen from entries around the world and what is more we ended up winning the Co production Challenge. I was surprised to see an international audience connect with the Mumbai rat killers, their daily struggles, dreams and dark sense of humour that lights up the narrative. The win in Cannes made local news and the article headlines read `from Mumbai gutters to Cannes’. The BMC officially gave us permission to shoot only after this even though I had applied for permission almost a year before, I think the media attention in some way precipitated this. We began thinking of the film as having international potential. We began crowd funding our film, and also blogging about the process. We finally finished the film with the IDFA-Bertha Fund from Amsterdam strongly backing us.
The Rat Race has played in over 13 festivals and won the top awards in Cannes, Florence, Kerala and two by the Indian Documentary Producers Association. I may not have been as ambitious if it hadn’t been for the small break we got at Cannes very early in our filming…
Nirupama: How did you set up Filament Pictures, and what inspired you to do so? What are some of the challenges and triumphs you’ve faced along the journey?
Miriam: I began as a journalist with CNBC and then a creative consultant with UTV where I directed a factual series for BBC and a full length documentary for the National Geographic Channel. I used to commute almost 2 hours each way. When I was expecting my son I was pretty sure that I wanted to get back to work and not undertake the commutes so I set up an office close to home. I decided that at Filament Pictures we would take up just 1 or two films a year but they would be high quality, socially relevant, narrative driven factual programming that could reach out to audiences at home and abroad. As luck would have it, I landed a second film with National Geographic Channel almost as soon as I set up my company and 6 months after my son was born I was documenting in Qatar, how robots were being introduced to replace child jockeys in camel racing. It was truly a challenge balancing work and my little boy but I have a very supportive family and I have always had lucky breaks with my work. I have over the years a small body of documentaries as well as short fiction films.
Nirupama: What have been your experiences with regards to the market for independent cinema in India, versus internationally? Have you found the support you’ve desired here on home turf – or have you faced extensive challenges along the way to get your vision ‘out there’?
Miriam: The toughest job is wearing so many hats as an independent filmmaker you are the producer, the director, the person marketing your film and distributing it! Truly as a creative person all one wants to do is focus on making the film. Having worn all those hats I think one just grows to realize right from when one is conceptualizing an idea, the potential it has and the avenues to explore. It does make a creative person a little more practical and rooted. With The Rat Race we self funded, crowd funded and finally got international support. We got festival releases, theatrical releases, DVD release, all these were first times for me. Every time I think the journey is over, there is a new twist and a new path to explore so it has been very exciting and gratifying.
Nirupama: How do you get sufficient funding for your films here in India? What suggestions would you have to aspiring young filmmakers looking to fund their projects?
Miriam: There is no clear way to get funding here in India filmmakers have very little support. There is PSBT and Films Division who offer modest government grants and only a few land these. Forums like Docedge (Kolkata) and Trigger Pitch (International Festival of Kerala) and Good Pitch (Mumbai International Film Festival) are ways to get international commissioning editors interested in one’s film and it’s great that these forums are now conducted in India, affiliated to institutes and film festivals here. There are international grants and funds that young filmmakers should apply to – this involves some amount of preliminary shooting and a lot of paperwork, budgeting etc. The good thing is that the international community is looking at India for factual content.
Nirupama: Speaking of which – you’ve garnered quite a bit of international attention and theatrical releases for The Rat Race, can you tell me more about that?
Miriam: The Rat Race has done extremely well in the festival circuit traveling to so many places – Amsterdam, Florence, Prague, Chicago, Seattle, London, Korea, Cannes – but for me as a filmmaker, it was when it came home to India and played to audiences in Delhi, Kerala, Mumbai, Bangalore – that I felt that it had even more meaning. After all the context is nearer home, the issues and people are ones around them a true life tale that unfolds every night in India’s commercial capital as the rest of the city sleeps.
We were extremely fortunate to get a theatrical release from both PVR and Big Cinemas because of an outreach programme organized by the Indian Documentary Foundation and the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy to specifically bring documentary films into the public domain so more people could engage with it. The Rat Race had an intriguing true life story no one knew about and a dark humourous narrative – and I decided to take a limited risk by putting it into the theatre. There was no way we could compete with Bollywood promotional budgets, we could not even manage to get newspaper listings in time nor reviews…but despite all this when the reviews came they were very good! Many filmmakers from the film industry came to watch the film and recommended it. In Bangalore we did better than the Bollywood releases and ran into a second week. All in all it was a risk worth taking – at that time we were only the second documentary to have a multiple city theatre release. Since then PVR has been encouraged to regularly release good documentaries that are being noticed and talked about.
I however feel that the time has come to offer independent films and documentaries a different model for releasing their films in the theatre. We as filmmakers need to keep aside some of our budget to promote our films and the theatres need to offer a `movie by demand’ platform. This is something that we followed whilst recently releasing The Rat Race in Austin Texas through two enterprising Indian ladies and their venture called Indie Meme. For the show to be held we had to presell almost three fourth of the seating capacity – which we were able to do largely relying on the social media. It gives us time to fill up seats and hedge the risk. This is a win-win scenario for both theatre and filmmaker.
Nirupama: The pursuit of independent cinema in India is certainly not an easy pathway to success. Did you ever feel hopeless along the way and consider giving up – if so, what is it that pushed you to keep going?
Miriam: Never ever! One has to have a strong heart and a resilient ego – and the humility to accept that it is a journey and one keeps making mistakes and so the journey never ends but twists and turns into new paths. It is always challenging and interesting. I love my work so much I do not think of it as work, it keeps me alive and ticking and excited every day. On the contrary to feeling hopeless, making films is the madness that keeps me sane, it gives meaning to my world. I must also add that fortunately my family does not depend on the income I make from my films for their sustenance or else it would have been very stressful…independent filmmakers take many years before they start making money!
Nirupama: Personally – have your dreams been realized? When would you step back and say ‘ok – my dreams have come true’?
Miriam: When I made my first film with National Geographic, I felt really satisfied because it was a channel I had always thought stood for worthwhile programming and strong aesthetics. But then by the time I made my second film for the channel, it felt a bit too like a familiar format. Also they owned all the rights to films I had spent shooting over one or two years. Making an independent creative documentary like The Rat Race made me grow and challenge sides of my personality that had laid dormant…I owned all the rights to the film and I had to market it, sell, distribute and get it watched. It was an intensive and humbling learning experience.
I hope the mistakes I made during this dizzying process can be avoided with the new documentary I have embarked upon and also I am itching to begin directing a fiction script that has been brewing for some years now. I don’t think I will ever stop or be satisfied for a long while, call it the creative dissatisfaction or creative itch …it never ever lets one sit still for too long, there is always a new dream to chase.
Nirupama: What changes would you like to see in India’s independent film scene? How could we facilitate those changes?
Miriam: There has to be a culture of viewing independent films. This starts at the school and college level so young minds are introduced to different content and form. I think that films are a fabulous way to enter whole new worlds and perspectives to make school and college curriculums engaging, real and dynamic. My dream is to start curating traveling packages to schools and universities and have filmmakers speak to students – here in India.
Nirupama: What’s in store for your future projects? Any ideas currently brewing that you could tell us about?
Miriam: I am co producing a documentary based in Pakistan about a music school that is very young and edgy. I believe it will be loved by an audience both here and in Pakistan as it engages with politics through the immensely popular idiom of music. I am collaborating with a friend Maheen Zia, a filmmaker based in Pakistan and we have completed our first shoot and have a long way to go over the next 6 months. I am also working on a Malayalam- English (bilingual) feature film very close to my heart for which we have a script and a lead actor committing to the project. The project is selected for the international co production market at Film Bazaar, Goa and I hope to get an international co-producer interested in the film so it gets off the floor soon.
To get The Rat Race on DVD, visit: