Our day of filming with the Irula tribe was shaping up to be an extremely hot day. When we say “hot” in Chennai, India, in the month of May—that means 115 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity. We had woken up at 4 a.m. to head out to meet with some Irula tribesmen to catch snakes and eat rats.
The Irula is an indigenous tribe in southern India that is legendary for its members’ skill in hunting venomous snakes. Traditionally, they used to catch snakes for the skins, but today they help protect the snakes and use their hunting skills to catch the snakes and extract the venom, which is then used to make antivenin for some of the 10,000 potentially fatal snake bites treated each year in India.
The crew is tired and a little upset when the tribe members show up a little late and the driver of the car overshoots the meeting location. It had taken several days of planning and running around to arrange local permissions to shoot the film, and they want to make the most out of their shoot day. Meanwhile, the Irulas in the group—Kali, Mari, and Rajendran—are clearly relaxed.
Kali makes the comment that he wonders why Henry is wearing a black t-shirt in such hot weather. Mari retorts that it’s probably because he wants to show his arms off. I decide not to translate this for the crew.
We start walking, and in about ten minutes Kali finds a Russell’s viper in between two fields. The Irula men quickly catch the snake, and then Henry talks to the camera about how dangerous the animal can be. Kali, who understands English, tells Mari that Henry seems to actually know how to handle snakes. Meanwhile, Henry explains to the camera his views on the penetrative power of a viper’s fangs. Later, as we walk through the fields, I ask Mari how dangerous he thinks the Russell’s viper is. He says that if you don’t bother the snakes then they won’t bite you and that he thinks documentaries make these snakes look far more dangerous than they really are.
Henry seems to enjoy himself, despite the conditions. He does not complain even once about the heat or the walk. He is talkative, and we start discussing the Henry Rollins Band. At one point he says, “I am fifty years old, man, and I don’t necessarily listen to what I used to listen to.” He speaks honestly and, unlike other personalities I’ve worked with, he does not demand water or rest stops and seems genuinely curious about the things we’re filming and the people we’re working with. After several hours of catching snakes, he and I are discussing films and how documentaries are made. I tell him that I sometimes feel that the job of making a documentary film is over-glamorized and has its own share of contradictions. But Henry says, “I’ll take it—and it sure beats flipping burgers!” A few minutes later we catch a cobra with a bad infection. Henry takes a couple of worms out of the snake and says that he could restore the snake to health if he could have it for two months. We release the snake, but its chances of survival look slim.
Toward the end of the day, the Irulas catch some rats in the field. Rats are one of their traditional food staples. Shooting this scene was tricky because the ground was uneven, the path in the field was narrow, and the Irulas did not understand English instructions very well. The heat didn’t always bring out the best in people either—especially when heavy equipment, lots of walking, and venomous snakes are involved—but Henry, at least, is still in good spirits toward the end of the day. He attempts (unsuccessfully) to entertain the cameraman by picking up a freshly killed rat and putting it in his mouth. The cameraman says that he thinks Henry is crazy. Henry laughs and replies that he thinks the cameraman is uptight.
The rats are then thrown on some brush and “cooked.” Initially, Henry looks quite aghast at the thought of his future meal, but he pulls it together and eats the rats with gusto. The cameraman tries to get enough shots and keeps saying, “Can you take another piece?” Henry doesn’t complain and tucks in. As he is eating, I notice something impressive. Henry chews his food—in this case, wild rats toasted over a campfire—thoroughly before swallowing, and he doesn’t take the “quick-bite-and-swallow” approach, which most people might, to get it over with quick but then be able to say later that they “ate rat.” The rats are whole—guts and lungs included—and Henry chews the half-raw rat bodies with apparent relish. Later, I tell him that I think he is really cool for doing that. He says he wanted to be “honest with the experience” and thus chewed and tasted every bite. Kali, one of the Irula tribesmen, is also impressed. He says to me in Tamil, “He ate it. He is a good man.”
So you could conclude, along with the cameraman, that this snake-catching, rat-eating guy Henry Rollins is crazy, but I personally happen to feel that Henry is saner than most people.