Chasing Tails: A documentary about a selfless animal lover in Mumbai

The story of a lone woman’s compassion for stray animals

Updated - December 16, 2017 06:59 pm IST

Published - December 16, 2017 04:15 pm IST

A still from Chasing Tails

A still from Chasing Tails

We meet Muneera Shaikh, the Mumbai-based animal welfare activist, as she gently coaxes a stray dog to stay still while she trims its unruly fur. We watch, almost like intruders, this scene of tender familiarity as Budhi Budhi paws Muneera’s face lovingly and lies in her lap.

Shots of their unique canine-human dynamic introduce us to the premise of Chasing Tails : Muneera’s unbound compassion for her animal friends.

The camera silently follows Muneera and the dogs trailing behind her, capturing her feeding them, the problems she encounters on these daily walks, and Mumbai’s unique transformation at night.

In the shadows

We never hear the filmmaker Tangella Madhavi’s voice as Muneera guides us through the narrative. But shooting at night, against the backdrop of the Western Express Highway, was no easy task. “I had to come to terms with the fact that my camera would not be able to see everything,” says Tangella, explaining how capturing Muneera and her work took precedence over technicalities.

This sometimes meant that the camera would lose her as she ducked in and out of the shadows while tending to the strays.

The documentary has been screened at Kerala’s SiGNS Film Festival and travelled to Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai with the Urban Lens Film Festival. But Muneera and Tangella’s acquaintance goes back to 2012, when they first met.

Tangella chanced upon her protagonist while planning to write a book about Mumbai’s animal welfare community. Having graduated from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in 2010, Tangella got involved with animal welfare in the city. On one occasion when she accompanied a stray dog in an animal ambulance, the driver pointed out Muneera to the filmmaker. “And I thought it was fascinating,” she says, her “entire aura — this fascinating woman who does this all night long, walking bravely.” Tangella decided her book could wait while she filmed Muneera’s story.

Pure and impure

The documentary portrays Muneera’s cheeriness and spunk, but it touches upon difficult topics — notions of purity and impurity, conflicts between people and animals and the gendering of spaces in the city at night — all in a breezy manner. Muneera talks about being ostracised for touching stray animals; even her mother refuses to eat the food she cooks.

“It works in my favour. One chore less to do!” she jokes in Hindi. In another shot, she is in a heated argument with a woman who gives her burnt food to feed the strays. In between, Muneera also laughingly recounts how she once beat up a man who tried harassing her with his friend one night.

Walking alone through the streets, Muneera is a unique, conspicuous figure in the sparse, largely masculine, community of the night.

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who is as obsessed with cinema as she is with gender rights.

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