They are paid to kill the rats
Miriam Chandy Menacherry, a documentary film-maker from Bangalore, who focuses on real life stories found the rat killers of Mumbai fascinating and decided to make them the subject of her film The Rat Race.
She pitched the concept to the Cannes jury at the MIPDoc Co Production Challenge, which is an international pitching competition for documentary film-makers.
They were equally intrigued by the story and Miriam won, beating entries from the Czech Republic, France, UK and New York.
The film delves into the life of the 30-member strong workforce who trawl the streets of Mumbai clubbing rats to death on a daily basis – a job they get paid to do by the government. A job that also requires a 10th standard pass and a high level of fitness. “I have a rat phobia myself and in Mumbai rats and people share the same living space on the streets. At first I used to be terrified of the rats swarming around at night, crawling over people sleeping on street corners and was quite a hindrance during the shoot,” she laughs.
With one third of the film already complete she talks of the challenges still ahead and the gripping human component of the subject. “Over 2,000 people showed up for the recruitment drive, from postgraduates to students needing a night job. Rat killers have to kill a minimum of 30 rats every night by beating them with a stick and are paid Rs 8 to 12 thousand a month. 29 dead rats do not count as a day’s work although, they are given a window of two days to reach their target,” she explains.
The carcasses are gathered up in sacks, counted by the supervisor and some sent to the Haffkine Institute for studies.
A pivotal character in the story is Behram Harda, a legend in rat killer circles who spent 35 years of his life working as a supervisor in the BMC's Pest Control Department. “He came to Mumbai to become an actor and landed the role of a banker in a Bollywood film. His father persuaded him to swap his starry dreams for the safety of a government job. He has painstakingly documented each rat killed over the years (over 2.8 million) in perfect Taj Mahal style calligraphy – a veritable work of art. He is known for his honesty and dedication and though just retired comes in to supervise the work,” she says.
Miriam feels that the rat killers reflect the dichotomy of India’s financial capital and City of dreams at many different levels. “Some of them worship rats by day and kill them at night.”
Miriam expects to release her film by December and is funding it herself although she is in talks with television channels and media houses. “I hope it will be seen extensively across the country as it is a deeply Indian story,” she signs off.