The story of Mumbai, India’s largest city, is linked inextricably with the story of the Kolis, the lower-caste, Indigenous fisherfolk community whose koliwadas (villages) dot the coastline. Until the 1800s, what we know as Mumbai today used to be an archipelago of seven islands, harmoniously inhabited by Koli communities. These islands turned into a city due to human intervention — a product of several land reclamation projects that also enabled the displacement of Mumbai’s original inhabitants.
It’s poetic then, that Sarvnik Kaur’s masterful Against the Tide opens with images and songs that speak of the resilience and fearlessness embedded deep within Kolis. The only Indian documentary to premiere at the 2023 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Against the Tide’s conservationist spirit is both intimate and urgent. Kaur doesn’t belabor the point, eschewing rousing statements in favor of piercing observations. Instead, she conjures up an exacting portrait of community and industry, casting an emphatic eye on the professional and personal hurdles that loom over Rakesh and Ganesh, two Koli fishermen friends whose paths have long diverged.
For both friends, fishing is a vital family inheritance — it isn’t just their livelihood but also a marker of their identities. Rakesh is poor and sticks to the traditional Koli principles of fishing, relying on the turn of the tides to cast his net in the shallow sea. His hand-to-mouth existence is contrasted by Ganesh’s entrepreneurial spirit and international education. Armed with social and financial capital, Ganesh ventures out into the deep sea in motorized vessels to maximize his catch. Still, redemption remains out of reach for both fishermen, their fate similarly colored by dwindling catch, commercial overfishing, increasing debt, global warming, and the sheer force of the sea.
The visible contradictions in Rakesh and Ganesh’s personal approach to fishing prove to be fertile ground for Kaur to frame the film as a personal drama, exposing the simmering resentment that threatens to tear them apart. Cinematographer Ashok Meena frames interactions between both friends in terse closeups, frequently employing long takes to convey a feeling of suffocation. Editing duo Blagoja Nedelkovski and Atanas Georgiev (Honeyland) inject an atmospheric sadness into Against the Tide, utilizing silences and festering disappointments as vehicles of suppression and isolation. Juxtaposed with the bleak reality that suggests an endangered future for their profession, Against the Tide transforms into a moving elegy. (The stark, wordless underwater sequences in which we see Rakesh and Ganesh catch rows of garbage in place of fish are sensationally staged.)
The documentary’s examination of a community caught between tradition and progress is enlivened by Kaur’s commitment to spotlighting their invisibilized lives. In more ways than one, Kaur is alive to the communal ways of the Koli existence, rendering their rituals, beliefs, and hybrid tongue with ample tenderness. The folk songs, heavy with pride, that punctuate the narrative allow for rare moments of hope and result in a pointed ask for dignity of life.
Against the Tide continues India’s recent triumph with nonfiction filmmaking. Until 2021, no Indian documentary had been nominated for the Oscars — only for the country to land back-to-back feature nominations with Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ Writing With Fire (2021) and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes (2022). International recognition also found Payal Kapadia’s hypnotic A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) and Vinay Shukla’s politically charged While We Watched (2023), documentaries that charted acts of resistance by designing themselves as love letters. Kaur cuts Against the Tide from the same cloth, revealing a scene brimming with inventive and audacious voices.
Against the Tide premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.