‘Against the Tide’ Review: Another Excellent, Insightful Indian Documentary About Life Itself

Sundance: Sarvnik Kaur’s powerful second feature blurs fiction and reality in a tale of friends torn by concerns of community and industry.
A still from Against the Tide by Sarvnik Kaur, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Snooker Club Films.
"Against the Tide"
Snooker Club Films

Blurring the line between documentary and naturalistic fiction, Sarvnik Kaur’s “Against the Tide” offers an intimate look at the nexus of culture and industry, in its tale of an Indian fishing caste — Mumbai’s Koli people — caught between tradition and progress. History and community collide with the stringent demands of technological advancement in a film that roots its broad ideas of culture and capital within the personal relationship of two best friends: Rakesh and Ganesh, who are as close as brothers. The duo’s diverging circumstances yield quiet conflicts that carefully expose complications which may prove impossible to untangle. The result is as exacting in its environmentalism as it is piercing in its personal drama.

The story is bookended by songs that sing of fearlessness and the emergence of new life, opening with the birth of Rakesh’s son, and closing with the birth of Ganesh’s, about a year later. Each baby is joyfully tossed in the air and massaged according to traditional wisdom, with the kind of force that might make outsiders wince, but in ways don’t really harm the newborns. These norms may not be physically soft, but they are emotionally tender. Over the course of the film, Kaur ties these aspects of Koli folklore to the ones that lie outside the household, creating a continuum between the birth of a Koli boy and the life of a Koli man, out at sea.

Both Rakesh and Ganesh are deeply entrenched in Koli fishing norms, between their personal investment in the process — a vital facet of their culture, stretching back centuries — and their financial ties to it as well. Rakesh is poor, and trawls the shallow waters in a rickety dinghy he inherited from his father; these days, his nets pick up more garbage than fish. He often finds himself at the mercy of an unregulated port, rife with crowding and underbidding, and he barely has enough money to look after his ailing infant.

The middle class Ganesh, who was educated abroad, goes much further out to sea in his motorized vessel, and he catches substantially more fish than Rakesh. However, as a struggling small business owner, his finances are rocky. Given the dwindling marine life in the region, thanks to the ravages of global warming, what he is able to catch is rarely enough. So, he has no choice but to consider selling his wife’s jewelry, and the apartment in which he hoped his child would grow up.

As a person with more social mobility, and more access to loans and familial wealth, Ganesh strongly considers adopting modern night-fishing techniques (those involving LEDs to lure fish towards his nets). Rakesh, on the other hand, sticks to the tried and true Koli methods of following the moon and the tides, but their differing perspectives don’t exist in vacuum.

Conversations between them, which feature a casual, friendly demeanor over home cooked meals, often conceal minor frustrations, hinting at the possible ripple effects of Ganesh straying from tradition, including how his advancements might further reduce the odds for smaller, less equipped vessels like Rakesh’s — an ongoing, oft-discussed danger. For the Koli people, fishing is both community and industry, but these two facets have become increasingly at odds in modern India, as the wealth-gap has grown.

A still from Against the Tide by Sarvnik Kaur, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Snooker Club Films.
“Against the Tide”Snooker Club Films

Kaur and cinematographer Ashok Meena take a restrained approach to both the local environment and its people, allowing the camera to observe each unfolding dramatic scenario from an unobtrusive distance. Of course, this undoubtedly creates a paradox at the back of one’s mind, akin to reality television: the question of how much of what’s on screen is “real,” in the strictest sense, and how much is partially or wholly staged, is practically unavoidable. Rakesh, Ganesh and their families are real people, and these are their real circumstances, though Kaur engages in highly rehearsed, carefully considered blocking and camera angles that, in lesser hands, might feel inorganic. However, she also allows her “characters” the full spectrum of interaction and emotion.

Along with the editing duo of Atanas Georgiev and Blagoja Nedelkovski (“Honeyland”), she ensures that Rakesh and Ganesh’s conversations don’t just convey information, but mood and tone. Their silences and doubts are just as vital as their statements and convictions. Even if there were some element of suggestion or coaching, it’s virtually impossible to have guided their impromptu conversations so natural a dramatic standoff each and every time, where their love and mutual respect (and on occasion, their growing class imbalance) often prevents them from fully speaking their minds, until eventually, these give way to mutual resentment.

It’s a film concerned with conveying blockades — both logistical and emotional — more than solutions. Therefore, it highlights its chosen issues not through grandiose, rousing statements, or calls to action born of portraying despair, but rather, as lingering, festering disappointments. No one dies, and no one cries, but at every turn, the drama skillfully builds as each man quietly accepts his circumstances, and his inability to adequately care for his wife and child (their wives may not be the central focus, but the camera often catches them at the moments they rise to meet their husbands’ problems head on, whether through little jabs, moments of smiling comfort, or even much-needed challenges to their authority).

A still from Against the Tide by Sarvnik Kaur, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Snooker Club Films.
“Against the Tide”Snooker Club Films

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival played host to the premiere of a similar Indian film, “All That Breathes,” Shaunak Sen’s riveting avian documentary that’s still appearing on the awards circuit. “Against The Tide” plays like its aquatic cousin, with staging that feels equally intentional, and a conservationist spirit that’s just as ethereal. In fact, the two films form an interesting triptych with a third production that feels nothing like them from afar: James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Sen and Cameron speak of the connectedness of all things, through air and the ocean; the latter’s depictions are more picturesque, the former’s more desolate.

Kaur’s film slots comfortably in between them, connecting its two subjects through traditions of water and childcare, while floating through the ocean in a dreamlike manner similar to the new “Avatar,” only its sprawling portrait can’t help but capture an increasingly desolate landscape, where plastic refuse has begun to replace a once vibrant ecosystem. If Cameron’s oceanic depiction was the ideal, Kaur’s is the reality, and both function as equally impactful warnings of what we lose, the more we poison our oceans and let them wither.

Kaur’s “Against the Tide” and Sen’s “All that Breathes” also invite comparison to another recent Indian documentary, Payal Kapadia’s docu-fiction protest chronicle “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” though less for reasons of style or subject matter, and more for the cultural standpoint from which they approach modern India. Sen studied at both Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, while Kapadia attended the Film and Television Institute of India, a trio of colleges that have, in recent years, been frequently persecuted for their associations with anti-government protest — a perspective reflected overtly when Sen and Kapadia’s films employ real footage of Hindu extremist pogroms against Muslim minorities.

Kaur is an alumnus of Jamia Millia as well, and while “Against the Tide” doesn’t evoke these violent images directly (though Kaur’s previous feature, “A Ballad of Maladies,” is notably about anti-government resistance in Kashmir), there exists a furious undercurrent beneath Rakesh and Ganesh’s story, whenever the camera captures the callous indifference of government officials, but abstains from commenting on it. Ganesh, however, makes sure to give them a mouthful.

This emergence, of Indian documentaries that both draw from and re-create the aesthetics of traditional drama, is a vital new direction for independent and parallel Indian cinema, as the flames of authoritarianism rise faster than mainstream populist filmmaking can meet them (if it’s willing to at all). With her entry into this recent canon, Kaur creates a vital portrait of the intersection between the spiritual and industrial in the world’s most religious nation, grounded in the poignant interpersonal drama between friends, families and communities. In moving fashion, she captures how the effects of climate change ripple far beyond the shore, into the homes of those who depend on the sea not for their living, but for their cultural identities.

Grade: B+

“Against the Tide” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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