Against the Tide review – modernisation makes waves for two Mumbai fishermen
Sarvnik Kaur's gorgeously shot and atmospheric documentary hones in on a fracturing friendship with skill and generosity
“Remember you’re a Koli. You fear nothing.” So young members of the Indian caste are told repeatedly in blessing ceremonies that most resemble a baptism. It’s easier said than done. Mumbai fishermen Ganesh and Rakesh are afraid of plenty as their businesses sputter, facing growing competition from Chinese industrial-scale operations and repeated crackdowns by the government, which outlaws nighttime catches. But politics is barely a backdrop in Against the Tide, which is in truth an atmosphere-driven, uncomfortably personal look at two men’s complex friendship in a world where it seems increasingly difficult to be friendly.
The first thing to note is director Sarvnik Kaur’s photography, which is absolutely gorgeous. Ganesh and Rakesh’s lives being not overly dramatic on the face of it, there’s time for Kaur to think deliberately about her subjects. That certainly wasn’t true for fellow Sundance award-winning doc 20 Days in Mariupol, which featured only frantic real-time war footage, and where characters came and cruelly went.
That’s not to say Against the Tide is an easy watch; it’s just as existential. What adds to the dramatic feeling is that you quickly forget there’s anyone behind the camera at all. Kaur has no interest in imposing herself on her environment. The film has a calm, observational quality. It's as though Kaur couldn’t disturb her subjects even if she tried. Her camera barely moves. It certainly doesn’t zoom. And, contrary to expectations, there are no fish eye lenses in sight (even if there is, occasionally, quite brilliantly used GoPro footage as the pair venture out to sea).
There’s also a poignant sense, which may explain the timing of Kaur’s film, that the sort of lives Ganesh and Rakesh inhabit won’t be around much longer. For them or anyone. Ganesh, the more canny businessman, calls himself “The Last Fisherman of Bombay” on a sticker attached to his car, next to a phone number. It’s not exactly true, but it’s good branding. The same can be said for his description of “Bombay” over “Mumbai,” the old colonial name not formally used for almost 30 years (some Indians, it should be said, prefer the old name as Hindu nationalists have taken to “Mumbai” as a kind of ethnic identifier). Still, nostalgia in the face of new hardship abounds.
Ganesh and Rakesh behave a bit like actors: they pause for long stretches after speaking, and pace around rooms as they talk. The access never feels uncomfortable because both seem abundantly happy to have their moment. Even if they’re not always in the best mood. The pair start at a similar level but as their economic conditions worsen, the friendship turns a little sour. Ganesh brags about his bigger house, and has less nice things to say about his buddy. One particular falling out comes just as the pair both receive bad news. Against the Tide could just as easily be fiction, so natural are its central characters.
Though its depiction of financial difficulty means it's never breezy viewing, Kaur’s skill as a photographer and her generosity to her subjects are crystal clear.
Against the Tide was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch