Ashima Narain, 31, is shooting a courting sequence of flamingos at Sewri. The problem is that the flamingos, around 20,000 of them, are walking on the sludge, which is created by the waste coming from the nearby factories. This sludge is dangerous; if you’re a hefty person, you’ll sink in it. It is like quicksand.
“But I want to take a shot of them courting and need to get close,” says Narain, who is slim and of light build. “So, just before the tide comes in, I step onto the sludge.” She is so engrossed in the filming she does not notice the water has started to come in. “Then I realise my feet are wet and I start to walk back quickly,” she says. “But, when I am about 15 metres away from the edge, I start sinking. So here I am, holding my camera and tripod above my head and in thigh-deep sludge and simply unable to get out.” There are some 15-odd men who had strolled in from the houses nearby, who are watching Narain but they are unable to do anything, because if they step on the sludge, they will sink too.
Suddenly, one of the men has a brainwave. He rushes home to bring his six-year-old son. “He can walk easily on the sludge. So, he takes my camera and tripod and it is only then that I can come out,” recalls Narain.
Work of love
It is a close shave for the first-time director. But she can smile about it today, for it has been worth it. For Narain, a commercial photographer, the idea of a documentary on flamingos came rather accidentally. She was intrigued when she read a magazine article on how every year, thousands of flamingos fly from the Rann of Kutch to the mud flats of Sewri. They come because of the prevalence of algae, which they love to eat. Ironically, the effluents and sewage that are spewed into Sewri bay accelerate this algal growth.
“When I go to see them for the first time, I am appalled,” says Narain. “There is a shipyard and a whole lot of factories all around and beyond them is this huge patch of mud sludge. But then I see this sea of pink…
“I took a year to shoot the documentary,” she continues. “In feature films, you can plan the shoot, reshoot, if required. But the flamingos won’t do their mating dance according to our convenience. We just had to wait for the right moment.”
She discovers one interesting phenomenon during the shooting: whenever she wears pink, she could get much closer to the birds. “So I always wore pink,” she laughs.
A visit to Sewri
I am curious to see the mud flats, so I go on a sultry afternoon. When I reach the site, there is complete silence, except for the chirping of small birds, who hop along on the mud’s surface. Of course, at this time of the year, there are no flamingos, (they come in November and return in May). There is the Sewri fort at one side and a grove of mangroves on the other and behind me is the Colgate factory. I go down to the edge and press my feet on the sludge. Surprisingly, it is hard and not soft, as Narain has mentioned. I take a couple of steps and, suddenly, there is a shout from behind.
A bearded young man, who later will tell me his name is Abdul Hamid Khan, says, “If you carry on walking, at one point, you will sink like a stone. I would advise you to return.” So, gingerly, I step back to safety.
Of the 40 hours of footage Narain shot, only 24 minutes is used. The film is funded by Narain and her sister Ruchi, a Bollywood director and scriptwriter, who produced the documentary.
Says Ruchi: “Ashima felt that we had this amazing phenomenon in the city and so few in Mumbai, let alone the rest of the world, knew about it. In other countries, they will just have three pelicans or tortoises and they will make a park and people will come from all over to see them.” Interestingly, the film has been funded by the sisters themselves; Ashima saved money from her fees as a commercial photographer.
One evening, I go across to Fun Republic to see the documentary, In The Pink, which is being aired during the ‘First Films’ feature film festival. It is a moving documentary, with an excellent script by Jerry Pinto, with touches of humour and pathos, and stunning cinematography by Sunjoy Monga. When they walk, the birds look almost comical, bending their knees awkwardly, which sets off a few laughs in the audience. But when they are in full flight, they make the heart soar.
Alas, the documentary highlights a bit of bad news. Studies have shown that there are alarming levels of heavy metals in the water and sediment, which, in turn, is affecting the algae. So the question is: how long will it be before it starts manifesting in the flamingos?
After the screening, Laxmikant Deshpande, of the Centre for Environment Education, tells me: “This is one of the best educational films I’ve seen in a long time. It is short and to the point and easy to understand.”
So what next for Ashima Narain? Well, she’s got a fellowship from the UK government and Discovery Channel to do another documentary, this time on the dancing bears of north India. Looks like commercial photography will have to wait a while.