Mumbai guide: Documenting the Koli community

Sep 07, 2018, 08:40 IST | Snigdha Hasan

A National Award-winning filmmaker is documenting the insidious impact of mindless development on the fishing community, and how it is galvanising them into action

Mumbai guide: Documenting the Koli community
A still from the film

As the image of a fishing boat silhouetted against the golden Arabian Sea plays on the screen, a voice-over by Bhagwan Namdeo Bhanji begins to narrate the story of a community that has worshipped its waters for centuries. "History as we know it has been written by upper caste folks. It's their history, not ours. And so the history of the Kolis lie in utter darkness," says the local Versova village historian.

Guide History

The film cuts to a more familiar side of Mumbai with high rises and cars vrooming down flyovers. Then, we are back to the shores, with the sea link towering over tiny boats. With this montage of contrasting frames, one gets the drift of the narrative of Fish Finger Seductions, a documentary on the indigenous fishing community of the city, in the works by Sarvnik Kaur.

Rajeshri Bhanji, head of the Koli women’s collective in Marol fish marke'
Rajeshri Bhanji, head of the Koli women's collective in Marol fish market

The Mumbai-based filmmaker got drawn to the Kolis' struggle for survival when she was documenting the conflict in Kashmir for Soz – A Ballad of Maladies, which won her the 64th National Award for Best Debut Direction. "When I would come back from Kashmir, I would read these headlines, which said that the Koli community would not survive by 2020. Or that the coastal road is going to be the end of the fisher folk. Here, capitalism is responsible for the displacement and dispossession of people. It is happening under our noses, in the name of some global idea of development," says Kaur, who began engaging with the Kolis regularly across their settlements in the city.

What she came across was a growing sense of discontentment among them because the fish has practically vanished from the sea, thanks to waste and sewage disposal into the sea and real estate sharks eating into the city's coastline. Relaxed redevelopment and Coastal Regulation Zone norms are immediate concerns the community is grappling with, Kaur explains.

As she delved deeper into their life Kaur realised that the women here are battling a crisis within, where several Koli men are getting easily manipulated by political candidates, and the larger good of the community gets swapped for paltry handouts. That's how she got associated with a women's collective that is taking on the two-pronged challenge.

Neck-deep in the process of documentation, Kaur is facing a challenge of her own. "I plan to make the film for the next three years. Development is an invisible adversary. By spending time with the Kolis, you get to see how it is slowly coming to occupy the space around them," she says. With state funds for documentaries drying up, she has launched a crowdfunding campaign for the film.

"It's easier to look at the community as exotic people who will dance for you when Obama visits, or be a part of a tableau in the Republic Day parade," says Kaur. While the fight for sons of the soil goes on, she points out a chilling irony, "The sad thing for the Kolis is they are not migrants. They have no native place to return to."

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