Nandita Das

Stories beyond fiction

  • April 1, 2012

Sadly for many Indians, a documentary means a boring, slow film that is meant to teach you something you don’t really want to learn. Probably, the association goes back to the memory of the documentaries one was forced to watch before a feature film in a theatre. Once when a perception is formed, it is tough to wipe the slate clean to form a new one. This is despite the fact that documentaries have come a long way, not just around the world, but also in our own country.

There are a host of filmmakers who are not just documenting, but telling us engaging stories about various realities that we either shut our eyes to, or don’t know exist. They are pushing the envelope with their narratives, bringing to us worlds that compel us to think and feel beyond what we see and hear. Not just the content, but also the form is being experimented with. Of course, at the end of the day it is a medium and it all depends on how it is used. More often than not, documentaries are made with meagre means, deep convictions and the courage to tell an unconventional story. They are painstakingly filmed over many months, some even years, and then don’t even make it to the theatres. 

In the vicious cycle of demand and supply, I think art by its very nature has to be the one that creates demand. Before Picasso, there was no demand for cubist art, or before Salvador Dali, there was little surrealism. It is their art that created an appetite for more of it. However, for this to work, platforms are needed where new art that pushes boundaries can be exhibited, helping new audiences discover it. Documentaries have survived thanks to a lot of underground and non-conventional means of dissemination. And now with the internet being a major democratic platform, we have easy access to a lot more. But why should they merely survive, when they need to flourish?

I have been fortunate to have watched many outstanding documentaries, both here and around the world. What I really enjoy about it is that they are often unconventional and literally about anything under the sun! To name a few would do injustice to all those names that skip my mind, but even to limit it to Indian documentaries would be quite indicative. Anand Patwardhan’s In the name of God, Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside, Shohini Ghosh’s The Tales of the Night Fairies and Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, about toilets and the city, are all uniquely special!

And now added to a much longer list than this is the recently released The Rat Race. Yes, released, in conventional theatres! It is about the NRK-an acronym I wouldn’t have guessed in a million guesses before this. The Night Rat Killers, battle with the world of rats with the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) team. It explores the lives of these young men, who, armed with a torch, a stick and a polythene bag, go around killing rats from midnight until daybreak, so that the city of Mumbai is not plagued with deadly diseases. A film that surprises at many levels shows us the inhuman side of the city, sprinkled with humour. The municipal officer seems to be ruthless in disqualifying NRKs from getting their payment if they kill even one less than 30 rats per night, and at the same time he is not the villain of the story. Miriam Chandy, the filmmaker, manages to make us uncomfortable about the paradoxes we live in But maybe her biggest victory is in managing to bring it to theatres at least in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Now the ball is in our court. Do we support such films and open doors for other documentaries or shut them by leaving the theatres empty, further perpetuating the perception that such films do not work at the box office? We have the power to have a fuller life with a myriad of offerings, but only if we become active champions of it. If we create the demand, the supply will follow, to put it simply, in our contemporary terminology!

Virata Parvam


Director: Udugula Venu

Language: Telugu

Character Name: Shakuntala

Key Cast: Kundan Alexzed, Chakrapani Ananda, Banerjee

Feastivals and Awards: NA

Film Stills: 9

BTS: 11