A lensman and a half-jetty
An incomplete jetty at Arnala fort island prompts fashion photographer Shashank Lawate to turn lobbyist for 5,000 Kolis who risk their lives while crossing over to the other side of civilisation.
Dreamgirl Hema Malini dominates the Instagram feed of fashion lensman Shashank Lawate. He follows female and male models on shoot destinations as varied as Burj Khalifa and Sydney Opera. But, as he pursues, what he terms "livelihood travel", one remote island— over 70 km from Mumbai, half-an-hour from Virar railway station—has unwittingly been stamped in his consciousness.
A chance visit to a friend's farm in Virar during the lockdown introduced Lawate, 47, to the infrastructural impasse in Arnala. As he took the ferry to the island from one side of Arnala beach, he realised the daily inconvenience faced by a cross-section, which has to literally wade through sea water because of the lack of a passenger terminal. As he made friends with the Mangela Kolis in the island—their population is 4,503—he gathered stories of risky adventures, freak accidents and the dependence on a lone passenger boat. He decided to draw the attention of the civic administration, particularly the Maharashtra Maritime Board, to the lack of a passenger terminal, a safe and dry waiting area, which could have made life better for an island that is often ravaged by choppy sea waves.
Lawate's 12-minute short film, Helkave, captures the communication crisis of the Koli fisherfolk, particularly women and schoolgoing children. While the film has just released in the public domain on social media platforms, Lawate could not organise a community special Dussehra screening today, due to COVID-19 restrictions. But, he is on the lookout for platforms of wider dissemination.
A still from the 12-minute Helkave, which follows Kamla, who wants to make the administration see the inconvenience suffered by Arnala Kolis over the years
Helkave presents the story of the village through the lens of a school-going Kamla, played by a real-life Std IX, third generation Koli girl Kamini Meher who resides in the village. She grows up as a young rights-conscious citizen, played by a mass media student and emerging actress Hrujuta Vasaikar, and vows to awaken the administration to the inconvenience suffered by Arnala Kolis over the years. Other Koli villagers have also been cast in the film. Village sarpanch Chandrakant Meher hopes the engineers, contractors and babus of the state environment ministry devote 12 minutes to the film to appreciate a lifetime problem: "We have found an unpaid advocate in an ad man. So far, no one from Mumbai has bonded so well with us."
As the jetty, an unfinished mass of concrete—"work soon to be restarted; halted due to lack of funding" is the board's response to this columnist—awaits a go-ahead, 130-odd children from the island commute precariously to their school on the other side. In the lockdown, these schoolgoers depend on poor mobile network for online lessons. The villagers' risk generally worsens in the monsoons, when high tide and heavy downpour coincide. In fact, the film was shot three days at a stretch in the rainy August, during the pandemic. "Our crew got a taste of the problems of real Koli people. It is cruel to compel people to take unsafe routes, and that too for such a long span," says film's writer-director Robin Lopez, who is a frequent visitor to the church inside Arnala fort.
Helkave is Lawate's second short film project in the lockdown, which follows the much-appreciated Mumbai On Mute (4.16 minutes), which went viral on social media. Lawate treated the viewer to a vacant, uninhabited, silent financial capital, the poorer version of a buzzing metropolis. The Bamyaiyya voiceover (ab lafda nai mangta) captures the city's core in the lockdown months. It dwells on the few things mobile—BEST buses, local trains, crows, lights, policemen, sea waves—in the abnormal COVID-impacted months. Lawate secured the press photographer's pass for facilitating easier movement for the shoot. "I didn't want to bunker at home; because never could I have gathered Mumbai on mute mode. As a photographer, it was my joy and my mission to document Mumbai's lockdown colours." Cycling around Mumbai is one of Lawate's leisure pursuits.
Lawate feels a strange sense of duty towards Arnala, despite no direct connection. While Vasai is his native home, he has mostly lived in Mumbai. Born in Dadar, and raised in a Borivli family of two government employees, he took to photography as a passion. The commerce student first zeroed in on nature and still life, then transitioned to the niche world of fashion photography. For 10 years, he assisted celebrity photographers like Swapan Parekh, Suresh Natarajan and Mino La Franca; he also photographed ad campaigns for the corporate sector; he has shot actor Shah Rukh Khan extensively in the past. In 2010, he shot late actor Irrfan Khan for a book
While Lawate's core work remains fashion and accompanying exotica, he is mesmerised by Arnala's seascapes at this point. "I find lifestyle and beauty both over here, which makes the whole experience 'above work' for me." Helkave is a personal tribute to arduous journeys of people who were once strangers.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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