Against the Tide review: Men at crossroads in Mumbai's Koli fishing community - Hindustan Times
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Against the Tide review: Men at crossroads in Mumbai's Koli fishing community

BySantanu Das
Feb 01, 2023 05:48 PM IST

HT at Sundance | Against the Tide review: Competing in the World Cinema Documentary Competition category at Sundance Film Festival, Sarvnik Kaur's stark, unrelenting film based on the indigenous Koli fishing community in Mumbai won the Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking.

In a scene from Sarvnik Kaur's Against the Tide, the only Indian documentary that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year, a fisherman from the Koli community in Mumbai, named Rakesh, faces an extremely violent storm as he makes his way ahead. In this weather, there are far more chances of catching fish, he knows. Its a stark, wordless scene shot from behind- as Rakesh pulls his swaying boat ahead. In more ways than one, this scene combines the danger and faith that lies at the heart of this fragile, expansive film.

A still from Against the Tide.
A still from Against the Tide.

Rakesh is not the only one that Kaur is interested in. Her focus also shifts towards Ganesh, who has a larger boat and uses the modern fishing technology of using LED lights to catch fish. He has studied in Scotland, and has newer ideas. Rakesh, on the other hand, adheres to the fishing traditions that he had learnt from his father, and catches small amounts of fish near the dock, in the shallow waters. He will give into the allure of catching fish using a different, illegal technology, that will certainly harm the sea. Both Rakesh and Ganesh belong to the indigenous Koli community of Mumbai, and also happen to be friends. With shifting circumstances forcing them to confront their assumptions and lifestyles, Rakesh and Ganesh struggle to maintain their friendship.

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The first component of Against the Tide that quickly settles in is the invisible lens that hovers around the lives of both these men. This is not a documentary where there are people who are speaking to the camera directly, and explaining their perspective. Neither Rakesh nor Ganesh are provided that structure of exposition- as Kaur fashions the film like a piece of narrative fiction; it almost blurs the lines between documentary and independent feature. This takes time to sink in, as there are scenes when the conversations tether around the edges of uncomfortable truths and realizations. Does the camera simply watch them as their friendship turns sour? Yet, Kaur never gives in, and aided with cinematographer Ashok Meena, lets the camera observe the two men from a paradoxical distance. The effect perplexes and illuminates, as the line between what is 'real' and what is partially 'staged,' becomes inevitable.

The cinéma vérité approach of Against the Tide (for which it won Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking at Sundance), examines the relationship between two men as a microcosm to expand on the larger unspoken evils that they cannot bridge- between tradition and modernity, the power dynamics built by the imbalance of class, and the inescapable structures of the Indian household. Only then does one realize why it works. Against the Tide is not interested in the skills and processes used for fishing- and this choice works to a perplexing degree of truthfulness. There is no gorgeous underwater sequences to romanticize the process. At most times, when Rakesh pulls in the net, there's a ton of waste from which he has to manually pick the fish and throw away the rest. The work demands double the effort and patience, so where is the time for fooling oneself in seeing the beauty in it? Rakesh's standpoint is enough to hint his concerns for a world headed towards the bitter reality of climate change. Kaur makes time to show how he preserves some amount of his home made food for the crows that settle on his roof, even on a harsh day of rainfall.

Against the Tide is stark and unrelenting in its transparency of a country where there is no language in expressing how the socio-economic divide has slowly eroded a community at large. The grievances of the Koli community alone is reflected in the later scenes when Rakesh will have to make a tough choice for the sake of his family. The editing by Atanas Georgiev and Blagoja Nedelkovski are effective in creating a specificity in the 97 minutes of screentime, even as Kaur never operates towards a grand resolution or payoff. In her film, neither of the men are villains. The bristle, cold tone might be frustrating to some, but is necessary to stay afloat in the harsh, unforgiving tide of capitalism.

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