The fish market at Sassoon Docks in Colaba is one of the largest and oldest such trading centres in Mumbai. About 20 tonnes of fish are brought to the market on a daily basis and laid out for display on ice – lots and lots of ice. Article upon article, photographs, videos and paintings have featured the fish market, but most of them forget the unspoken, silent hero of the market and the entire fishing trade – the ice.
Well, not everyone. While viewing the Sassoon Dock Art Project in 2017, Niyantha Shekar and Anirudh Ganapathy came across a steady stream of activity around lorries filled with ice at the far end of the dock. The two of them – both in their 20s – were intrigued. Being a filmmaker and a cinematographer/photographer, respectively, they were drawn to the visual-aural spectacle of the making and transporting of ice.
What did they see, exactly? “Vapours emanating from massive blocks of ice, crushing machines spitting out shredded bits, the diversity in the kind of labour involved (dragging, breaking, crushing, shovelling, and transporting in hand carts), and the colourful lorry art,” Shekar told Scroll.in.
What began as a photo essay on the ice workers turned into a short film, Baraf – Ice Men of Mumbai. Inspired by Bert Haanstra’s Glas and Sergei Loznitsa’s Fabrika, Baraf dispenses with dialogue and narration and uses visuals and background sounds to recreate the repetitive and relentless nature of labour. The film clocks under five minutes, and was shot over three days.
Most of the workers hail from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, and have been migrating to Mumbai to work at the docks over the past 50 years, the filmmakers said. “It’s not clear how this business got so strongly associated with Unnao, but the men seemed to indicate that each generation simply followed in the footsteps of the earlier one,” Shekar said.
They learnt that the workers typically come to Mumbai in their mid-to-late teens and often spent decades in the business. “The workers deal with deep blisters and painful shoulder and back aches due to the hard labour involved,” Shekhar added. “Some of them even turn to alcohol at the start and end of each day to deal with the pain.”