THE STORY – Bombay fishermen Rakesh and Ganesh are inheritors of the Koli knowledge system of harvesting the sea following the moon and the tides. Rakesh has kept faith in the traditional fishing methods; Ganesh has instead embraced technology.
THE CAST – Rakesh Koli & Ganesh Nakhawa
THE TEAM – Sarvnik Kaur (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
As director Sarvnik Kaur’s moving new documentary “Against the Tide” opens, a newborn baby is ritually tossed in the air by a midwife who chants, “You’re a Koli. You fear nothing,” much to the approval of beaming parents Rakesh and Devyani. The Koli are an Indian caste of fishing people who live off the coast of Mumbai, and Rakesh has followed his family’s long tradition of fishing in the sea just outside his village.
Besides his family, Rakesh’s closest bond is with his best friend Ganesh, a fellow fisherman with whom he spends countless hours commiserating about the challenges that each man faces in trying to make a living on the sea, a situation due in large part to climate change and increasing pollution(When the men haul in their nets each day, their catch contains far more plastic bags than marketable fish).
“Against the Tide” is unafraid to take on big topics, such as faith, the environment, the Indian caste system, and overreliance on technology. But Kaur’s approach is to subtly weave them into the narrative that views the issues through the eyes of their friends and families. By slowly taking the time in the film’s first act to introduce these families and allowing us to witness both their lives and their sacrifices for one another when the outside forces begin to impact them dramatically, we are already invested in their story, no matter what their differing views might be.
Such differences can be serious. For example, though as close as brothers, Rakesh and Ganesh could not be farther apart in their approach to their livelihood. Rakesh is a traditionalist, fishing without the use of machines in the shallow sea, a decision that reduces his income so much that his family can’t move out of their small toilet-less home. On the other hand, Ganesh is more worldly, having been educated in Scotland and fluent in the latest technological breakthroughs in the field. Working in deeper waters, which requires machines, a larger boat, and a bigger crew, his haul may be greater than that of Rakesh, but so is his overhead, resulting in increasing debt, which forces him to find new sources of revenue. Yet, even after loans from lenders and family members, Ganesh is reduced to selling the family jewelry of his wife, Manali, just to make ends meet. Clearly, for both men, something has to change.
That change may come in the form of LED lights, which have proven to be an effective tool to attract fish in deep sea water and lure them to the surface. But the practice encourages overfishing in once-plentiful waters, and, as a major threat to the environment, their use has been banned by countries worldwide, including India. Rakesh wants no part of the practice- not just because it’s against the law but also because it contradicts the traditional methods he believes to be sacred. Still, his newborn has been diagnosed with a severe heart condition that requires expensive medical treatment, and that weighs heavily on his mind.
The financially-strapped Ganesh, however, is seriously tempted to use LED. On his laptop, he has been tracking the number of Chinese boats that have been infiltrating the area and using the banned lights, depleting the area’s supply of fish. He’s conscious of the damage the practice is doing to the environment, as well as the fact that, if he is caught, his boat could be seized, thus ending his sole source of income. But Manali is now pregnant, and he is in desperate straits. That moral and practical dilemma facing both men is the essence of the drama in “Against the Tide,” one which threatens to split apart the once-powerful bond between them.
It would have been so easy to make Ganesh the villain of the film — a big college guy coming home to show these rubes how it’s done, bringing with him his modern ideas without regard for his people’s sacred traditions. But Kaur is not interested in a good guys/bad guys showdown and takes instead a more nuanced approach, recognizing the complexity of the challenges that both men face in their own families (If their wives, Manali and Devyani, recede too much into the background at times, the issue may be more with village culture than with the film).
Like its environmentally-minded cousin, the 2022 Indian documentary “All That Breathes,” Kaur’s film makes its most vital points about climate change not through lectures or charts but by the powerful visuals of what man has done to alter the weather patterns that can affect the lives (and livelihoods) of millions of people. Ashok Meena’s cinematography, in particular, artfully gets the message across by showing, not telling.
When the midwife returns at the film’s conclusion for another happy celebration, it serves as a welcome reminder of the traditions that are so important to the Koli people. And if it may seem that Rakesh is swimming against the tide in holding on to them, Kaur’s touching portrait suggests that tradition and progress can coexist in the villages of Mumbai.