On a December evening, the glimmer of hundreds of torches dotted the fishing hamlets of Kanyakumari district in coastal Tamil Nadu. The fisherfolk were praying for their loved ones who went missing after Cyclone Ockhi tore through the Indian ocean on November 30, capsizing boats and bringing down homes.

Almost a month after the cyclone wreaked havoc in the southern tip of the country, scores of fishermen have not come back from the sea. Some estimates say that more than 400 fishermen are still missing. While relief operations are still underway, the numbers are still unclear. Back home, families are torn between hope and despair as they clutch pictures of the missing men.

These sordid images, along with the wails of grief echoing through the villages, are captured in the documentary Kanneer Kadal (Sea of Tears) by Vinavu.com, an alternate Tamil media platform. A five–member team made their way to the fishing villages of Kanyakumari within a week after the storm blew through the district. “We did not plan to make a documentary at first,” said Nathan, a team member who headed the project. “Initially, nobody knew the impact of the cyclone. Then we heard claims of 1000 fishermen having gone missing. So we decided to find out what was happening.”

The result was an 81-minute documentary that traces the lives of the fisherfolk and the government response in the weeks after the cyclone. The film was screened at Madurai, Tiruchi and Chennai on Christmas Day.

Kanneer Kadal.

Nathan and his team travelled across eight villages in three days, going from door and door to meet the distraught villagers. They even stayed over at the houses of the fisherfolk.

“Since we spent a lot of time with them, they began to open up to us,” Nathan said. But these were difficult interviews to conduct. “We found it hard to not get overwhelmed by the grief and assume our role as journalists,” Nathan said. “What can you ask people who have experienced such loss? We had to steel ourselves and complete our task.”

The documentary plunges into the anger and discontent among the villagers about the government’s seemingly apathetic response to the situation. Every household voiced their fury at the inefficiency of the Indian Coast Guard in rescuing their loved ones. The question was also raised as to why a warning from the India Meteorological Department was not issued earlier, when independent weather bloggers had spotted a cyclone travelling along the coast.

Too little, too late

It did not help that majority of the English media began noticing the destruction only when the possibility arose of the cyclone hitting the coast of Gujarat ahead of the elections. The cyclone weakened eventually, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral campaign to score a repeat victory carried on with full vigour.

“When hundreds of people are missing in Kanyakumari, Modi is travelling around Gujarat like a ward councillor,” Nathan said. In one sequence, visuals from Modi’s voluble campaign in Gujarat during Ockhi is juxtaposed with the last Roman Emperor Nero’s apathy during the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. “Nero is Modi’s earlier version,” Nathan declared.

Meanwhile, at the state level, full-fledged campaigns were being carried out at RK Nagar constituency in Chennai for the bye-elections that were held on December 21. Reports of bribes offered to voters in the area has angered the people of Kanyakumari even further. “You go from door to door begging for votes, but you don’t visit us to hear our grievances,” said one man. “When there are no people, there is no government,” cried a woman.

Vinavu attempted to go beyond focusing merely on the anguish of the fisherfolk. “We wanted to understand what was unique about the people here,” Nathan said. For nurturing experts on shark fishing, football and kabbadi, Kanyakumari was a lot more than just the Vivekananda rock, he said. The larger context of fishing communities are little understood, and respect for their intuitions about nature are rarely respected, he pointed out.

Given the openly subversive nature of the documentary, it is not surprising that Vinavu.com found it difficult to secure police permission to arrange a screening on the topic in Madurai, Tiruchi and Chennai on December 25. “Till the last minute, we were unsure if it would take place,” said Nathan. “But somehow, with help from our lawyers, we managed to screen it.”