In her coastal village arrives Rudro (Titas Zia), a Dhaka artist, seeking inspiration, away from the city cacophony, bringing along his “universe” (sculptures, sketches) in a cabin-sized wooden box. He’s welcome, until he stirs up the hornet’s nest. He’s a gust of wind that flares up fires: mind’s liberation (children to make art or Tuni’s desire for a different life) or confinement. The Muslim cleric contends, the sculptures (“akin to Hindu idols”) have cursed the village. The men are unable to procure ilish (hilsa). Rising sea-levels causing low catch is to be rubbished. The villagers are at the nerve centre, at two ends stand two worldviews: the self-serving imam Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) and the well-meaning Rudro, man and nature, life’s dictum and art’s defiance, tradition and modernity, conservatism and progressive liberal thinking, blind faith and science, self and community. The twain shan’t meet, for “even waters have boundaries, the red and black don’t mix”. These two are not Marvel-like back-and-white hero and villain. The magnificent visuals make the greys stand out: the overcast sky, the sand, the muddied waters in high tide, and human behaviour. The vibrantly clothed women and children – like cheerful hues – are to be kept in check. When the storms come, and people leave, it is in art/artist’s “universe”, that the scrupulous Tuni and Rudro take shelter in.
After BFI London and Busan International Film Festival last year, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s The Salt in Our Waters (Nonajoler Kabbo) won the NETPAC award at the recent 26th Kolkata International Film Festival. And, has been nominated for the Ingmar Bergman International Debut Award (among the likes of 2020 Cannes’ French showcase Gagarine) at the 44th Göteborg Film Festival (January 29-February 8) in Sweden.
The Salt… may not have taken off had it not been for Spike Lee. The American filmmaker, and creative advisor of Sumit’s graduate film programme at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, was “the first person to give me money, a writing grant in 2016, and three mentoring sessions,” says Sumit, who found his French producer (Ilann Girard’s Arsam International) in India – at NFDC Film Bazaar’s co-production market. Lee explained to Sumit how “shooting in Bangladesh during monsoon, on boats, in high tide (when the location gets disconnected from the mainland), might turn into a nightmare”, and that he needed to surround himself with more experienced people, “who’d create a safe bubble for me,” says Sumit, who sought a crew with South Asian experience. His Tisch senior and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungoj (winner for Materna at 2020 Tribeca Film Festival), who “spent her childhood in southern Thai coasts, and was familiar with the fishing cultures of the Global South”, came on board. It’s “challenging to shoot here”, he says, owing to “lack of infrastructure (India is different from, say, Nepal and Bangladesh)”. Recent studies show the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta water levels have increased marginally faster than the global average.
When Cyclone Amphan slammed into southern Bangladesh coastline, in May, in the middle of the pandemic/lockdown, Sumit was worried about his fisherfolk friends in the Gangetic delta of Kuakata in Patuakhali district, where he shot his debut feature. He’d seen what a cyclone leaves in its wake.
In 2007, he visited Kuakata, 11-13 hours from the capital Dhaka, three months after Cyclone Sidr had devastated it. “Walking along the coastline, you start seeing outside the tourist bubble. You see tiny fishermen clusters. You see their unique way of fishing. They put a shallow engine on a wooden dinghy boat and go straight into the ocean. The boats cross three waves and the third wave is usually so big that the boat goes almost 90 degrees up. It looks so dangerous from the shore. You feel the boats would topple, but these men are experts.” That singular image led to his NYU graduate film The Salt…
“The way they turn things around after a cyclone is nothing less than heroic,” says Sumit, whose first film, a short guerrilla-style docu-fiction City Life (2007) landed him at the 2008 Berlinale Talents. The seafaring folks are simple but resilient, incorruptible but susceptible to religious superstition. “These vulnerable communities bear the brunt of climate change, feel the effect every day, but don’t have the big picture, the science of it, and, thus, resort to superstition. It becomes easier for people like Chairman – educated, lived in city, well-connected – to manipulate them,” he adds. But, “without provocation, the fishermen would never attack the artist. Though there are people like Chairman in society who, when the status quo is shaken, feel insecure and may instigate innocents,” he says.
“Extremism takes root and grows silently in society, when you start to accept it. In the film, people have accepted Chairman’s ways of life, but he gets the better of them,” says Sumit, who wrote the story in 2014, in response to the 2013 Shahbag protest, “when the clash between right and left started to surface more strongly, and the extremists attacked artists and liberals”. Chairman, however, the guardian who believes thousand-year-old traditions glue the community together, has a softer side, too. And, while Rudro becomes a saviour in the end, he’s flawed, selfish, and unaware of the effect his art can have on his subjects.
“I’m questioning the artist, and through him, I’m questioning myself and what effect my film can have on the fishermen’s lives and climate policymakers,” says Sumit, adding, “as an artist, I must keep pointing out the systemic injustice in my society, while, I know, that I have to work with the system to iron these out.” The film, whose title has a “fault in our stars” ring to it, is balanced, doesn’t get didactic, it is grey, while its specificity, local-ness, realness makes it universal, its shared experience will resonate with Indians.