“Against the Tide” director Sarvnik Kaur.

Going ‘Against the Tide’ of Documentary Form

Director Sarvnik Kaur redeems herself with whiskey and empathy

“Against the Tide” director Sarvnik Kaur.

Courtesy photo

When Sarvnik Kaur set out to make Against the Tide—her award-winning Sundance documentary about Mumbai’s Koli people and their struggles as a fishing community—she wasn’t sure what story she would tell, or if she would even finish telling it. “Can you be a passive participant to your own life?” Kaur asks, describing the months before she began making the film. “If you’d put a gun to my head, I would’ve said, ‘Go ahead, shoot me.’” But when she finally found her subjects, best friends Ganesh and Rakesh, whose philosophies on technology and tradition often clash, she was welcomed into their families with open arms. “I was just occupying space, and then I got so much love, and I am so happy to now be able to share it with everyone.”

From left, Ganesh and Rakesh relax in “Against the Tide” by directed by Sarvnik Kaur.

Courtesy of Snooker Club Films

Against the Tide is unique in its use of cinematic form; it’s shot far less like a traditional documentary, and far more like an independent drama with intricate staging. However, its “characters” are real people, with whom Kaur spent several years, and whom she now considers her friends and philosophical gurus. The story of how the movie came to be begins with her previous film—A Ballad of Maladies, which she co-directed with Tushar Madhav in 2016—from the way it was made, to the political fallout of its making, to the transformation she would subsequently undergo, both personally and as an artist.

A Ballad of Maladies chronicles musical and artistic resistance in Kashmir, a region highly contested by India and Pakistan, and one which remains under Indian military occupation. Kaur, who lived in Mumbai at the time, was moved to tell this story because of her own fraught family history, with her grandfather having been displaced from Pakistan during India’s partition by the British in 1947. Maladies is what one might describe as prototypically distinctly “documentarian,” between its observational quality and its frequent use of “talking head” interview segments to capture Kashmiri plight under the Indian military. However, Kaur soon experienced disappointment on multiple fronts, starting with the chilly reception from locals, followed by a cold shoulder from film’s distributors, Doordarshan, the TV network founded by the Indian government. “Doordarshan never showed it,” Kaur says. “In fact, they behaved as if the film never existed.”

“As a two-person team, you don’t have the right to unilaterally decide whether you should take the National Award or not. I went and accepted it, and something inside of me died.”

Kaur and Madhav’s luck soon changed when the film—after being screened by the The Public Service Broadcasting Trust, a non-governmental non-profit—won the Silver Lotus Award for Best First Non-Feature Film at India’s prestigious National Film Awards in 2017. However, this too posed a complication for Kaur, since the awards are also government administered—the very same government her subjects had been resisting. To make a film now approved of by their oppressors, even indirectly, is hardly an ideal outcome, and when faced with another vital crossroads (and with Madhav wanting to accept the award), Kaur chose a path she now regrets. “As a two-person team, you don’t have the right to unilaterally decide whether you should take the National Award or not,” she explains. “I went and accepted it, and something inside of me died.”

Kaur also adds that her acceptance was initially intended as an act of appreciation, towards “those who work within the system to ensure that the state recognizes voices and stories of dissent.” But when she now speaks of A Ballad of Maladies, she does so with a weight on her shoulders; perhaps it’s the guilt she began feeling in its wake. She calls her decisions naïve in retrospect, both her decision to the accept the National Award (which she now sees as her family history and filmmaking objectives being “co-opted”) and her decision to pick up a camera and go to Kashmir in the first place, as someone with an outsider’s view of the conflict and local culture.

This viewpoint also influenced the way Maladies was shot. “That film was talking heads. And I think as far as the form was concerned, I knew as a mainlander Indian, there was no way I could pretend to have some kind of shared experience of what it means to live under conflict for so long. So, there was a conscious choice that we made.” Looking at Maladies and Against the Tide side by side, you wouldn’t think they have a filmmaker in common, or that Kaur had made one immediately after the other. If the former was a work of observation, and of capturing narration from afar, the latter was one of empathy, peeking over its subjects’ shoulders as it sought to better understand them.

Koli fisherman Rakesh (right) checking his catch in “Against the Tide,” directed by Sarvnik Kaur.

Courtesy of Snooker Club Films

Kaur’s renewed filmmaking process began with a piece of advice she was sarcastically taunted with while shooting Maladies. “Something interesting had happened in Kashmir. Someone had told me, ‘Why don’t you pick up a camera and make a film in your backyard?’” Kaur recalls. “That statement really stayed with me. Like really, really stayed with me.” While in Kashmir, Kaur got word of Mumbai’s coastal road project, an ongoing highway construction along Mumbai’s shoreline, set to disrupt the local fishing economy by cutting off access to traditional fishing areas. And so, the idea for her next film began to germinate, one that was much closer to home. Kaur’s “backyard,” it turned out, was a Koli village right by her apartment building.

“The parallels were unlimited. It was so obvious. You displace people in the name of nationalism in Kashmir. You displace people in the name of development in Bombay. And my family was displaced.”

“The parallels were unlimited,” Kaur says. “It was so obvious. You displace people in the name of nationalism in Kashmir. You displace people in the name of development in Bombay. And my family was displaced.” In 2017, Kaur began spending time with a local Fisher Women’s Collective, during their attempts to prevent a nearly 200-year-old fish market from being turned into a mall. It was then, while searching for a specific subject, and a specific way she could be useful, that she met Rakesh, after being invited home by his wife, who was part of the aforementioned collective. However, before picking up her camera once again, an important question weighed on her mind: “Am I really helping them, or am I helping my own cause?”

The story of Against the Tide sees Rakesh, a poor man who inherits a single fishing boat, frequently debating his lifelong pal Ganesh, a businessman embracing new and invasive fishing technologies, about the need to preserve Koli fishing traditions as their catch dwindles thanks to climate change. It’s a clash of perspectives, and of wrestling with values at a time when it seems most difficult. After Kaur’s experiences with her previous film, it just so happened that this was exactly the story she needed. “I think because I was feeling so conflicted within myself, I didn’t know what values I stood for. We said something, we did something else,” Kaur explains. “What [Against the Tide] has done for me is that it has basically made me find my own values.”

Ganesh (left) with his best friend Rakesh in “Against the Tide,” directed by Sarvnik Kaur.

Courtesy of Snooker Club Films

Against the Tide is a moving reflection of daily life for the Koli people, whom it affords a deep cinematic interiority, given the way it captures them. The camera, rather than being a distant observer looking in on Rakesh and Ganesh’s arguments, is practically a participant, rolling up close while filming their exchanges in close ups and carefully composed two-shots, as if these had been expertly rehearsed, and naturalistically dramatized by method actors. Of course, the reality of the image itself is much simpler—these are simply conversations over dinner and drinks, nothing more—but the reality of how Kaur came to capture this spontaneity, in such close quarters, while making her subjects feel comfortable with her presence, is marvelously amusing.

“We are copious drinkers of whiskey,” Kaur says, about herself and her two subjects. “Over the course of the first year-and-a-half or two years of my research, I did not pick up the camera at all. The three of us would sit down and consume really huge quantities of whiskey. I would put my camera on a tripod and we would just record our conversations.”

“I started to realize I was not asking them to just give me access to their lives. I was asking for something deeper,” she recalls. “I was asking them for their souls. And that this could not be some sanctimonious decision of mine as the filmmaker, that ‘I know your life better than you, and I know how to narrativize it.’ The basic idea came from the fact that they would argue a lot, walk away in a huff, not talk to each other for months, and then get back together and start drinking whiskey again. So, I started to see something that was really, really beautiful. That they have their differences, but yet there’s something that binds them together.”

“Against the Tide” producer Koval Bhatia.

Courtesy photo

What exactly that “something” may be is something Kaur refuses to label, though she speculates it might be anything from love, to friendship, to brotherhood, to community, all things she’d been searching for as well. For Kaur, finding her place again meant becoming part of her own story, and part of a family. “The camera was there and yet wasn't there, because I was there, and they loved me, and I loved them,” she explains. “The choice was that the film should be felt and experienced in a way where the viewer could forget that it is a documentary, and put himself in the shoes of the characters and see the choices that they're making.”

If it was redemption Kaur had been seeking, perhaps this was it. “I think to a large degree, my camera became a source of catharsis,” she muses. “I was made to realize how shallow my understanding of things can be, how limited my creativity is, how infinite [my subjects’] lives are. And If I can just be there as they're living their lives, and be there as I'm living mine, the film will make itself.”

Published on February 2, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter