Netting the conscience

Ranjit Hoskot

Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001


It is a chill January night and the streets of South Bombay are deserted, most good citizens evidently having deemed comfort the better part of valour and stayed indoors. But the fisher-colony of Machimar Nagar wears a festive look: people have forsaken the warmth of their homes and the ease of their favourite soaps and begun to gather beneath a colourful applique-work shamiana to watch a video-screening. Nothing unusual about such an open-air entertainment, you might think, but the film that is about to be shown to the audience is no Bollywood blockbuster. “Fishing in the Sea of Greed” is, rather, a documentary made by the noted film-maker and activist Anand Patwardhan, and tells this particular audience a story about its own life and struggles.

Black Hole

Indeed, the screening apparatus has been set up on a platform occupied by Rambhau Patil, general secretary of the National Fish Workers and Farmers Organisation, and his colleagues, who have gone on a hunger-strike to draw attention to the travails of their community. Patwardhan knows his audience well, having worked among them for a number of years and documented their demonstrations and agitations, the ebb and flow pattern of their cause. He speaks briefly about “Fishing in the Sea of Greed” and then stands back to allow the projection to work its magic.

The film opens with the compelling and memorable image of a boat flying towards the audience on the crest of a giant wave; the deep roar of the breakers in the film is echoed by the boom of the tide coming in, not a hundred paces from where we sit. The audience is spellbound: this film does not lull them into a sense of torpor with a judicious combination of fantasy and nightmare; instead, it depicts their struggle for livelihood and justice. If it establishes an epic for them to rejoice in, the epic is an inclusive one: the fisher-people form the supporting cast themselves, and the workaday heroes are drawn from among their own ranks.

Machimar Nagar is situated along a curve of land skirting the Arabian Sea, a curve that connects the central business district of Nariman Point with the elite residential and commercial area of Cuffe Parade. The contrast between the fisher-colony and the two areas that abut it might have come straight out of a phrasebook of Third-World social realities: the huts and single-storey houses are overshadowed by imposing tower blocks on the one side and by high-rise apartment complexes on the other. In this spare space, the fisher-people conduct their daily negotiation with the brooding ocean. And, as though the forces of nature were not adversary enough, the fisher-people have had to contend, in recent times, with the challenge of mechanised trawlers and the mammoth marine fish-processing units known as factory ships, which deplete the sea’s wealth by overharvesting, even during the breeding season.

“Fishing in the Sea of Greed” spans several years in the life of the South Asian fisher-peoples movement of protest, and traces the story from coast to coast, dwelling on the courageous battles that dispossessed and marginalised communities have fought against the State and private enterprise, in western India, South India and Bangladesh. To the people of Machimar Nagar, the film brings news from elsewhere, gives them visual evidence of the solidarity among the dispossessed across the boundaries of region, ethnicity and language.

“Fishing in the Sea of Greed” shows them that their situation is no different from that of the legendary Kattamaram fishers of Kanyakumari, who gave their name to that English synonym for outrigger, the catamaran; it shows them that the injustices meted out to them are matched by the brutality suffered by fisher communities in the Sunderbans, where salination and land-grab operations have choked off the local estuarine economy. And, by way of counterpoint to the narrative of despair, Patwardhan’s documentary gives its audience such inspiring figures as Thomas Kochery, who has organised and led the fisher communities of India against the powers that threaten their livelihood with extinction.

Conveying the sense of passionate urgency implicit in such a collective life, “Fishing in the Sea of Greed” embodies an empathetic symbiosis between film-maker and subject. For Anand Patwardhan has long taken up, as his mission, the mandate of articulating popular struggles, lending his unsentimental yet persuasive camera to those whose voices do not always carry as far as the capital-cities where aloof mandarins decide their fate through abstract legislations and ordinances.

Educated at Elphinstone College, Mumbai and Brandeis University, Massachusetts, Patwardhan has always adopted an adversarial stance in relation to those in authority. His first documentary, “Prisoners of Conscience” (1978, 45 minutes, black-and-white) took up the issue of political prisoners in India, especially those detained on ideological grounds during the Emergency (1975-77). And in the celebrated and controversial “Bombay Our City” (1985, 82 minutes, colour), Patwardhan evoked the rigours and horrors of daily life for Bombay’s slum-dwellers, contrasting these with the luxuries enjoyed by the prosperous classes in the same metropolis. Somewhat literal as Patwardhan’s early portrayals of socio-political paradox may now seem, they have served as powerful and provocative instruments of revelation.

Patwardhan went on to make “In Memory of Friends” (1990, 60 minutes, colour), woven around the efforts of a group of Sikh and Hindu peace activists to restore communal harmony in Punjab during the Khalistan terrorist movement, followed by “Raam Ke Naam”/ In Ram’s Name (1992, 90 minutes, colour), a film that studies the rise of violent Hindu militancy by tracing the build-up to, and the aftermath of, the ruinous Ramjanmabhoomi agitation.

In “Father, Son and Holy War” (1994, 120 minutes, colour) Patwardhan addresses the complex relationship that knits together organised religion, violence and male identity; in “A Narmada Diary” (1995, 50 minutes, colour-video), a film co-directed with Simantini Dhuru, he phrases a hymn to the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s struggle on behalf of the people who have been, and will be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Anand Patwardhan’s career-graph as a film-maker demonstrates clearly that the medium of film need not confine itself to amusement: it reassures us that the film-maker as gadfly, as critic, as conscience-keeper of society, is alive and well. Threatened by right-wing goons and sought to be deprived of the vast viewership of national television by a wary bureaucracy, the critical film-maker remains undaunted nonetheless, and reaches out to viewers by informal means when the formal ones fail.

Sitting under the shamiana at Machimar Nagar that chill night last month, we could not help thinking of how appropriate a metaphor the tent is for documentary cinema. It houses you in a new space without uprooting you from the soil; it defines where you stand but also brings you news from other oceans, other expanses of sand, other horizons. That, in effect, is what truly provocative documentary cinema does: it frames the human condition in a sharp all-round edge: it helps you to define yourself, while situating that self-definition in a wider and ever-widening landscape of collective aspiration and endeavour.

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