An Interview with ‘Against the Tide’ Filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur

Against the Tide Interview - 2023 Sarvnik Kaur Documentary

Sarvnik Kaur’s 2023 documentary Against the Tide centers on two individuals, Rakesh and Ganesh, from the indigenous Koli fishing community of Mumbai. Rakesh has kept faith in the traditional fishing methods, while Ganesh has strayed from them by embracing technology. As a result, the repercussions are reflected in their personal and professional lives. Each of them has to fight their own battle by depending on a mighty sea that is becoming increasingly hostile because of climate change. Through this crest and trough of existence, Against the Tide tells a tale of deep friendship and rising conflict. The documentary had its premiere at the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. During a phone conversation, Kaur spoke about the genesis of Against the Tide, her very particular working methods and the enduring spirit of individuals under environmental duress.

Dipankar Sarkar: While you were a student at the Jamia Millia Islamia, did you want to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking?          

Sarvnik Kaur: While I was at Jamia, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I just thought I’d come to Bollywood, and that was my calling. So, I came to Bombay in 2009 and started working as a scriptwriter at the time. I was doctoring scripts. There’s no reward for it at an emotional level or at a creative level, so much so that I felt like I had run out of stories to tell. I didn’t know what a filmmaker or a storyteller was without any stories to tell. It was like a sort emotional exhaustion that I reached. That’s when I decided that an independent route was the only way for me to go forward. So, I pretty soon woke up to the reality that was Bombay — the industry. I think I’m just a misfit in any industry. When you’re a misfit, then the industry is certainly not your space, and that’s how the documentary space began. Speaking about Jamia, I don’t know if I learned any filmmaking skills over there or not, but I surely learned how to question the established hegemony — how to question the established status quo, how to question the world that exists around you. That was the core ability that I got from Jamia, which then helped me find my own politics and my own voice in this space that I’m now in.

DS: So, that is how you made your debut as a documentary filmmaker with A Ballad of Maladies (2016).  

SK: Yes, very much so. I co-directed the film with my classmate from Jamia, Tushar Madhav. If I wasn’t naive and young enough, I don’t think I would have done the film. If you notice the form of the film, I was always very aware of being an outsider. There was no pretence of wanting to be an insider to that story as someone from mainland India, especially with the camera, where the power dynamic is already skewed because you’re on the oppressive side. So, it was clear to me that talking heads was the way to go, and [then] establishing yourself as the third person, the other. When the film was given a national award by the government of India, it sent me into an emotional tizzy. I felt as if I had been co-opted. First, it was a PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) film that was ignored by Doordarshan (Indian Public Service Broadcaster), and they did not screen the film. They just did not acknowledge its very presence or anything, but on the other hand, they gave it an award. I felt like I was being used. I felt like this documentary was appropriated, and that’s how the state serves its purpose. It goes to serve, again, the oppressive side. So, I just kind of shut myself down for a year. I needed to really re-evaluate myself and my being. I felt like I was wasting my time and space. What am I? What values do I uphold in this industry that have disappointed me? What was it that I was looking for in this film that I made? Those things were what actually propelled me to make my second documentary, and I think, in a big way, it saved my life and has been life-affirming.

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DS: Is that the reason why you took a gap of several years to make your sophomore film, Against the Tide?

SK: Yes. I think, for me, it was very important because, as I said, there was a lot of loss of confidence that happened after the National Award. I had to find that confidence again, and I had to find the reason to do what I’m doing. So, I decided that I’d do it very slowly. I will do it diligently. I will do it honestly. I will do it with transparency. I will do it without an agenda. I will do it in a way and form that are unique to me. I was looking for something in the world and knew that I needed to find it within myself first before expecting it from anyone else or anywhere else. In that sense, I wanted to work on my craft and tell this film in a way and form where you forget that you are on the outside — and that within these people, you see reflections of yourself as yours. Thereby, instead of standing in judgement as a third person, you start to see what choices you would make. How would you deal if you were in that particular circumstance? It was essential for me to reach that point where vulnerability is not an external thing. It’s where you’re as vulnerable as the person being filmed, where the power dynamic is flipped in such a way that it becomes inherent to both the subject and the person holding the camera. So, we had to reach that position of trust. We had to reach that position of honesty and transparency. As I wasn’t in a rush to tell the story. I wrote myself this note before beginning Against the Tide, telling myself, “Just lower your ambition and strengthen your resolve.” I went with that in my mind and heart. That’s how making the film took time, and it shows in every way in the film because this film needed that kind of time.

DS: Why did you go for an observational approach for Against the Tide?

SK: I had deep existential questions before making Against the Tide, and for me, it was incredible that these two people gave me access to their lives and accepted me. I was asking them for a lot of transparency because that’s how I imagined my film was going to be. It would be like living life on the inside. The trust-building exercise took over a year and a half, and at that point, it was immaterial whether the film got made or not. What was most important was that I continue to hold their respect and love so that I could witness and, when the time came, also record. It was a friendship that had started two years ago at the protest site and continued two years later when we were still drinking together and meeting their families. But honestly, the reason I wanted to do this film was Rakesh alone, because he was a treasure trove to me. It was like his confidence in his own ability to feed himself made him fearless. I mean, his value for his own life didn’t come from whether he was rich or not or poor or not. He wasn’t intimidated by Ganesh’s status or anything. He had this intelligence and simplicity that seemed radical to me. I believe it was the desire to share that intelligence with the rest of the world that caused my clever brain to wonder, “Does he have no ambition? Can he not see the crisis that his family is in?” I think even in the film, I’ve tried to convey his very deeply held beliefs, which are the reason for his intelligence, which is very informed of the times. He may not speak a very modern language, but he knows something very deeply true: that his life has value, whether he has money or not. That’s because he’s praised and brought up in a community that really celebrates your existence. You’re present, and your presence is praised.

With Ganesh, sometimes I think he is so much like me. I believe that intelligence comes from living honestly and joyfully. It’s almost like a malady of intelligence, in which we call ourselves rational beings. He lives very much like the modern man, the clever man. He thinks that he was at the center of it, just like me. So, I think we could mirror each other. Ganesh’s story, of course, was more complex and had more at stake. The fact that he left his job as a financial advisor in Scotland and returned to India to fish says a lot about his love for his ancestral way of life. We formed the bond out of admiration, and in retrospect, it was like I was being led by the nose. At one point, I thought to myself, “I have great collaboration,” and that’s what I wanted. I never expected to have subjects or protagonists. I wanted to collaborate with someone, and that meant that I offered my transparency before seeking it from them. That meant that I offered my acceptance, my love and my friendship to them first before I expected it from them. And then it followed from there on.

Against the Tide Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Niharika (In the Mist)’ Filmmaker Indrasis Acharya

Against the Tide Interview - 2023 Sarvnik Kaur Documentary

DS: Through their evening drinking sessions, I felt there was a certain kind of class division that exists between Rakesh and Ganesh, which also reflects the differences between the lives of the fisherman who has adopted modernization and those who remain adherent to the traditional methods.          

SK: This is the story of the Kohli community, and just like any other society, there are haves and have-nots, and that is exactly what is depicted in the film. But they marry among each other, and there are deep familial relationships. They’re all kind of related in one way or another. So, of course there’s a class difference, and that’s where capitalism has crept into these very deep bonds. What you see is a reflection of that, as well as what has occurred since the 1980s, when they first began trawling and were displaced from the sea portions in the shallow sea where they used to fish, and they had no choice. They had to modernize or quit fishing, and quitting is not something that they think of as an option at all. That is unimaginable for them. And that’s how you manage to keep your traditions alive after post-liberalization, when it is nearly impossible not to be affected by a thriving consumerist economy.

DS: Share your collaboration on Against the Tide with your cinematographer Ashok Meena.    

SK: I realized early on in the research that whatever crisis happens on the sea is reflected in their lives in terms of social pressures, financial pressures and familial pressures. So, it was very clear to me where exactly I wanted to place my camera. I wanted to place my camera exactly where the pressure points were. I think in the beginning, it took me almost a year to set the language for the film, and many DOPs have come and worked for short durations. Ashok has such a beautiful eye and has this way of engaging with the moment on an emotional level and also on an aesthetic level, like how he’s going to frame it. A lot of times, it was impossible for me to be in the room because we were a three-person unit — the sound, Ashok and me. I was often the camera attendant, the production guy and the person who had to hold the baby when the frame did leave the baby in it. Often, I had to run to another side to get things for us. We’ve had creative differences, and we often debate. But there was something that Ashok felt so deeply about the film, and he enjoyed being in that moment. He enjoys taking off his pants and jumping into the sea behind Rakesh with a GoPro. So, a lot of it — honestly, the collaboration that we’ve had — has taken five years. On average, we would roll our camera for 10 hours a day. I mean, for a 12 or 14-hour shift, we would bring back 10 hours of footage. By the end of it, we had 400 hours of rushes.

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DS: Atanas Georgiev and Blagoja Nedelkovski, who worked as editors on the Academy Award-nominated documentary Honeyland (2019), edited the documentary. How did they come onboard Against the Tide?  

SK: I was a fellow at Hot Docs Accelerator Lab, and I told Julian, who was the fund director, that I was struggling to find an editor and should find myself one. I have a French coproduction, and I knew that my editor had to be from another country because of the funding I had secured. But I can’t imagine working with a Western European editor. Julian introduced me to Samir Ljuma, who was the DOP of Honeyland (2019). So, I shared with Samir that I was struggling to find an editor, and he spoke to Atanas, and a meeting was held. I sent Atanas some things that I’d put together, including a trailer and a 20-minute fundraising piece that I’d made. What drew me to him was the desire to create a sense of time and life in the film. I also thought, as far as values are concerned, Honeyland had the same values. There was a dignity to life that went beyond class and poverty. There was a way of thinking that was larger than capitalist thinking and stemmed from deep insecurity and fear.

DS: How did Against the Tide take shape during the process of editing?    

SK: During the editing process, I realized that it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. Rishiraj Bhattacharya, who worked as a development editor, and I sat down and basically separated the 400 hours of footage by putting markers on the best scenes. I had a structure in place already. This is where the film begins. This is where the film went. But there were still a lot of social and cultural differences that had to be addressed. The film is about the conversation between the heart and the mind. I really got lucky because, between my two direct editors, there was a heart and a mind. There was the clever guy and the emotional guy. Blagoja was the deeply emotional guy who understood Rakesh and was willing to celebrate Rakesh with me. Atanas is extremely intelligent, extremely sharp, an extremely good technician and an amazing editor who thinks a lot about how to make a documentary film look like a fictional one. However, where I struggled was that Atanas, with whom I was initially going to collaborate alone, kept asking me, “Who’s the villain of your story?” I struggled to explain to him that I did not go into these people’s lives thinking that I was going to tarnish one as a villain and romanticize the other as a hero. Atanas thought there was no third act in the film. I was very convinced that I had a third act. So, for four months, we kind of struggled with the edit. I ran into visa troubles, and I had to come back to India. Over the next two months, while we were trying to figure out the visa, I started to learn Avid on YouTube and made a structure that was about two hours long, with which I then went back to Macedonia in August. By October, our film was kind of ready. We then had a couple of focus group screenings to fine-tune the film. For both my editors, each of the characters kind of resonated with their personalities, and we found the story of the film that way. Considering I had a pretty good idea what the film was going to be about, I was very familiar with the everyday routine and crises of my characters. Moreover, we had a very focused approach. So, I had, like, two years of production time where I literally chopped the beginning, middle and end of the film. Once that happened, the biggest challenge was for the editors to see the potential in that, and once they did, it was easy from there on.

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Against the Tide Interview - 2023 Sarvnik Kaur Documentary

DS: Can you talk about the sound design of Against the Tide?     

SK: Moinak Bose, the sound designer, did the most basic homework, which was to build a huge library of on-location sounds of the sea, the fish as it was brought out of the water, the creaking of the boat, etc. There were some very keen observations made, which were also recorded during the filming process. What I wanted to do was create an environment that is extremely rich in samples. Moinak and I have consistently worked together for five years and were really trying to build this film into an immersive experience — almost like you’re there. I wanted to hear the croaking of the frogs when the rain stopped. I wanted to hear the chirping birds, the crows and the nature that surrounded them. In contrast, Ganesh’s house is a lot more closed off from all these external voices and sounds. You have more modern city sounds, such as the lift pinging, the car, the vibration of the fridge or the microwave. Rakesh, on the other hand, was more natural, and the house was in the corner of the village. So, it’s almost like I wanted to bring the whole village alive for what it is. I also wanted to bring the community to life through sound. I wanted the sound to do parallel storytelling, which complements what you see on the screen and lets you almost imagine what may be outside. Like, what is the environment like? Rakesh’s house has an asbestos sheet roof that almost consumes itself when it rains. It’s like you’re surrounded by it. We wanted to replicate that. I wanted to put music on when Rakesh went into the sea during the monsoon, which is not obvious, because I wanted people to know what a bravura he is. What is it that gives you the confidence to go anywhere without fearing for your life or not only feeling the scare that one would normally feel when heading out into the season? It’s so violent and flashy. So, these were some of the ideas that Moinak literally brought to life. The work on sound happened in France and India. It took us about eight weeks to finish.

DS: How did you use foley to further enrich the soundscape of Against the Tide?            

SK: The foley was done by Masaya Kitada in Japan. When he saw the film, he got really excited and did foley for the entire film, like everything. We then took those calls, like when we wanted to exaggerate the silence of the sea where Rakesh is fishing. We had the creek, the clacking sound of the crabs or the sound the squid makes when it throws out the eggs. So, we kind of then played with the foley levels in the mixing in terms of how much we wanted to exaggerate the silence when we wanted to do it. I was constantly playing with dichotomy, with the dualities, so that I could bring them together eventually into the film, where they start to mirror each other and look like one another. That was my brief for both sound and our image. We were basically playing with contrast and trying to bring it together as the film proceeded.

Against the Tide Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘I’m Not the River Jhelum’ Filmmaker Prabhash Chandra

DS: After making Against the Tide, do you perceive the Koli community in a new light?

SK: Someone asked me a few days ago, “What will happen to the Kolis?” Do you think they will be displaced? I said that I never thought that the Kolis were in danger. It’s the modern man who’s in danger. We are the ones who live life so much on the outside. We want wealth, we want power and we want to accumulate everything to make life more extraordinary all the time. The Kolis have something that is very beautiful: they know that life can be tragic. But there is a lot of joy in living with satisfaction and satisfaction in what you have, as well as a deep-rooted faith in the ability that you will not go hungry and that you will always have food. That is something really different for me from what I thought, and engaging with the Kolis — Rakesh in particular — and his family made me realize that I had to drop my cleverness every step of the way. That is what the modern person suffers from: too much rationality, too much intelligence and too much putting things in perspective as the central point. I find Rakesh’s characters and his way of thinking very aspirational. It made me realize that human life is insignificant when it comes to the bigger natural forces that are around because they are also a part of the food cycle and they can only consume for so long and so much. I worry more for the Bombay dwellers, not so much for Kolis. I think Kolis are fine. If they have lasted for 5,000 years, they’ll last even longer. It’s us we need to worry about, and the film was primarily for us to be able to appreciate that what they have is timeless and invaluable. So, we need to come to cognizance with our inside lives and make them richer instead of finding and accumulating riches on the outside.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

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