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‘You have to be distant and yet be close’: Sarvnik Kaur on ‘Against the Tide’

Director Sarvnik Kaur on ‘Against the Tide’, her intimate new documentary about two Koli fishermen, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

A still from 'Against the Tide'
A still from 'Against the Tide'

Though Against The Tide has as dramatic a story arc as any fiction film, it first snares the viewer with image and sound. The first shot is of a baby being massaged lovingly by his grandmother. We see the baby’s father, Rakesh, head into the sea, to the accompaniment of a Koli work song that goes “Fear not, fear not, fear not.” Later, Rakesh talks to his friend Ganesh, another fisherman, who says that if the catch is good, they should go to Scotland. We see Ganesh in his car, metal blaring, and then in the glorious chaos of a pre-dawn Mumbai fish market.

Against The Tide is Sarvnik Kaur’s second feature documentary after the National Award-winning Soz: A Ballad Of Maladies (2016), co-directed with Tushar Madhav, about music and personal expression in militarised Kashmir. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Vérité. This film, some six years in the making, follows Rakesh and Ganesh as they negotiate a competitive, shrinking market. Rakesh is a traditional Koli fisherman, who goes out alone with his boat. Ganesh has a bigger boat with a crew; he fishes in the deep sea, which Rakesh is opposed to. Kaur captures their banter and lively debates and their lives with their families, creating an intimate portrait of a friendship caught between progress and tradition, identity and ambition. Edited excerpts from a Zoom interview with Kaur:

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This was your first feature film after ‘Soz’. What drew you to the Koli community?

On Soz, I was filming in Kashmir as a mainlander. After the shoot was done, I realised I had no business being there. Someone in Kashmir had told me, why don’t you pick up a camera and make a film on your backyard? That stung but it made a lot of sense.

I have lived next to a Koli village for all my time in Bombay. While I was in Kashmir, there was a news story that caught my attention, about the displacement of Kolis from their villages for the sake of a coastal road. That’s really what drew me to it, the fact that it was right in my backyard, an opportunity to tell a story in which I could immerse my life and the viewer eventually.

I started working with a Koli fisherwomen’s collective at that time, around May-June 2017. There was a woman at the collective called Bhanu Vasudev Koli who invited me home for lunch one day, where I met Rakesh, her son. He took me fishing in a small boat. We caught the fish, ate it. He said something wonderful—“Koli aadmi kabhi bhooka nahi marega. Mujhe sirf paani mein jaana hai and main apne family ka pet bhar sakta hoon (a Koli will never go hungry. I only need to go into the water to feed my family).”

He says something like that in the film too.

That was his favourite (thing to say). Traditional fishermen have bamboos embedded in the seabed, upon which they tie their nets and catch fish. If Sagarmala (a Union government port development project) were to happen, they would be displaced and lose their place in the sea too. This brought all the Kolis together, from all of Bombay and Gujarat. It was at this protest that I met Ganesh for the first time. Ganesh wasn’t talking the language of protest, he was talking scientifically—nautical miles, pollution, plastic. He said Kolis are the last bastion of Bombay, that without them the city would drown, because they are standing between the mangroves and the city.

It was about a month later that I went to meet Rakesh. And there was Ganesh, sitting and drinking with him. Over the next year or so, the three of us would meet and drink whisky, and these two would debate, argue, fight, get up and swear not to talk to each other, and then get back together. Their arguments were reflective of not just the difference in their fishing but also their approach to life. It was almost like I was looking at two different sides of a coin. And still there was this common love for the sea, for fishing, for identity. I knew this was going to be the backbone of my film. A series of conversations between two men who belonged to two different spectrums but found themselves tied together.

We knew there was a crisis on the sea. The first time I went with Rakesh, he got tons of plastic and very little fish. I knew we would find jellyfish infestation, chemical pollution. But I wanted to connect my story to the fact that everything that happens on the sea also happens in their personal lives.

This film has taken a long time in shaping. It could only happen because the three of us had a bond.

There are moments in the film when the men must be vulnerable, like when they fight with each other or argue with their wives. How did you tackle the power dynamic between yourself as film-maker and them?

I was never asking them to be my subjects. I was seeking collaboration. I was filming, I was making short edits, which I would show them. We would discuss these. They would sometimes guide me. At no point did I want to make them look like anything they didn’t feel is true. And only once I had their blessing could I continue. So every step of the way was a litmus test.

The camera became a way of catharsis, of saying things that would go unheard otherwise. That’s the craft, and that’s the trust-building exercise. How do you stay there with your camera when the moment is so fragile? You have to make your presence as small as possible, you don’t even want to breathe in case it disturbs the moment. You have to be distant and yet be close.

A lot of the imagery in the film is so arresting. Tell us about your collaboration with cinematographer Ashok Meena.

Many DoPs (directors of photography) came and went, no one could give me the language I was looking for. Then one day I saw (Kamal Swaroop’s) Pushkar Puran (2017) and I asked, who is this magician? Ashok does this because he loves doing it. That’s why the Vérité award was special because it says so much about collaboration. He engages with the moment not just with his mind but with his heart. He’s so aware of what’s happening around.

Our unit was always three people: me, the camera and sound. I didn’t want anything bigger because then it becomes intrusive. Our cameras were always tiny, we were always working with DSLRs. It was often not possible for me to watch the frame constantly. I had to trust my DoP. And my DoP had to trust me to know what I was doing. Because we were filming for 10 hours a day, because we wanted the everyday-ness in the film. That’s something Ashok understood, that we are aiming for the mundane, that beauty in detail.

Though it isn’t a musical film like ‘Soz’, you do use music to establish setting and character, from the work songs the fishermen sing to ‘Mi Dolkara Daryacha Raja’ playing on the radio.

When you are working with artists, everyone wants to add value to the film. It’s difficult to keep people understated. I did not want “story interventions”. I would say (to composer Igor Vasilev Novogradska), don’t bring me pictures, I want colours. He would bring these complex melodies inspired by Koli spaces and I would say, this needs to change. It took us four-five months of deletion. I wanted anything that would tell me how beautiful this ordinary, this everyday is.

Was securing funding a struggle?

I have done everything from selling off my gold to crowdfunding to eventually finding the support. I think the support came through once I had more clarity on where the story was going, which is very important for funders to know. It has been a very production-heavy, cost-intensive film because we needed two boats, we needed to go into the deep sea. But I never let money be the reason why we would stop. I have done whatever was needed at the moment.

You have to think on your feet. If you are willing, you will find a way to do it. The commitment you have to your film, the clarity with which you approach it, the relationship you have to the process will eventually be reflected in the money you are able to raise.

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