Something Smells Fishy: Resisting Coastal Invasion in India

The film, if anything, is a facet of a ballooning people’s movement to battle the blitzkrieg of India’s coastlines by commercial interests. Set on the golden shores of the Indian state of Kerala, KP Sasi argues that, "both coastal ecosystems as well as the customary rights of fishing communities over coastal areas are severely eroded by developmental activities and market interests – tourism, industrialization, sand mining, infrastructure-building, aquaculture and rapid urbanization".

Kerala, a small state on the western coast of southern India is home to one of India’s most educated populations. Long governed by the Marxist Party of India, Kerala boasts being the first Indian state to have attained a 100% literacy rate while the national average hovers around 65%. Though the state’s lack of jobs has produced an unusually high number of émigrés who work abroad and send home remittances, Kerala’s fishing industry accounts for nearly a quarter of India’s total marine output.

The fishing controversy surrounds the state government’s attempts to remove the CRZ or Coastal Regulation Zone, the only piece of legislation in Indian history that polices developmental activities along the coast. Enacted in 1991, just as India began the bouleversement of the License Raj, or state control of the economy, the CRZ helped to shield Indian fishing communities from the type of development that Sasi details in Resisting Coastal Invasion.

Nevertheless, as India embraces more and more free market reforms, the CRZ, in the eyes of bureaucrats, developers, and the business community, appears to hinder their plans for a more commercialized Kerala.

Most Keralan fisher people use traditional methods to fish such as stitched nets and handmade boats. While effective for meeting the population’s immediate needs, which the struggle wishes to uphold, they fail to slake the government for a more globalized form of growth. They require almost no industrial infrastructure such as ports, marinas, or wharfs and do not entail much large-scale factory work. On the contrary, traditional fishing methods necessitate an immaculate natural environment: unpolluted and fully-stocked ocean, and clean, strong, and accessible shorelines.

Sasi explores these issues and how they harm the local fishing community by interviewing nearly everyone associated with the fisher people’s struggle. These well prepared, thoroughly interviewed academics and social activists present every angle on the systematic government-sponsored plan of expelling the local fishing community in exchange for all the benefits of World Bank backed, neo-liberal investment: boutique hotels, industrial ports, private beaches, and tsunamis of wealthy Western tourists. The depth with which Sasi explores the mining of sand for commercial purposes and how this destroys the coastline is especially thorough. It brings to mind issues that have already hurt fishing communities in other parts of the world (ie, south Louisiana to name but one).

Yet, as fisher folk (at least in the USA) would remark, Resisting Coastal Invasion’s ‘big catch’ is also its ‘bird’s nest’. It’s difficult to ascertain whether or not Sasi uses his interviewees to help establish and refine his point-of-view or if he coddles them too closely to hide a missing story, fleshed characters, and a compelling human element to express the Keralan fisher people’s struggle.

The plethora of interviews underline a tension found in many documentaries: documentary as art form vs. documentary as a coarse tool of social activism. The best documentary-makers are able to blur both into a seamless construction of cinematic and social purity. However, Sasi’s movie, for better or worse, is more a work of an activist than that of an artist. If Resisting Coastal Invasion feels about 20-30 minutes too long, it’s because activist films will often sacrifice artistic prudence to make a crude point and immolate a narrative for a cause. Sasi, while exploring some serious threats to the survival of the Keralan fishing community, such as the mining of sand and the invasion of Western tourists, ends up casting his net too wide. Bringing up issues such as climate change, global warming, and rapid urbanization seem shallow compared to the depth with which he dives into the most pressing issues.

No one should blame or judge Sasi for devoting his movie to a larger movement that seeks to protect Indian fishers from a brutal onslaught. Sasi’s real strength as an activist-filmmaker is how clearly he shows the Keralan fishing community uniting to defend their rights to the coastline and seas’ resources. Shots of men, women, and children, all of whom generally yield a fishing pole as opposed to a protest sign, abound in the documentary. Moreover, many of those leading the protests, shouting into megaphones, and rallying the community are women, which even in today’s more open India, is still an achievement.

Their movement’s strength should come as little surprise: the Communist Party, which has dominated Keralan politics for the past 50 years, invests heavily in education, healthcare, and has fostered a culture of defiance towards corporate capitalism. Sasi is correct in his analysis of the fishing community’s plight against big business interests – they live and work on the shores of the Arabian Sea and thus they are entitled to its fish and sands before any mining or hotel company. Especially in today’s neo-liberal obsessed economic climate, any group fighting to maintain their traditional way of life should be so fortunate to have an activist like Sasi make a movie about their struggle.

Still, what’s unforgivable is that artist and activist-filmmakers alike understand that at all costs, they should do everything in their humanly power to avoid the scourge of all documentaries: talking heads. They are stale. They are fusty. They are clichéd. Resisting Coastal Invasion, for all its articulate sound bites and robust moral conviction, snags itself with shot after shot after shot of stuffy old-timers who slouch in their chairs and just blab away.

KP Sasi’s Resisting Coastal Invasion ultimately lacks a vibrant human hue. People, their lives and their struggles, whether personal or political, create worthwhile documentaries. Talking heads, endless voiceover, and highways of B-roll produce stagnant and sterile informational videos about often dynamic causes and movements.

In one instance Resisting Coastal Invasion really breaks outside its own wake and attempt to penetrate an individual’s personal reality: a Keralan woman from the fishing community complains how tourism has attracted a massage parlor sex clientele, the subtext being that the industrialization of their coastline will lead not only to the pimping of Kerala’s pristine beaches, but also to its daughters. It’s this vivid, almost understated image that can make some edited miniDV tape more than just a documentary, but a piece of socially relevant art. And like a fish that has nibbled your lure and darted away unscathed, it’s precisely these so very human tales that Resisting Coastal Invasion fails to ever reel in.

Fiilm Information: Resisting Coastal Invasion, Directed by KP Sasi, 52 minutes