Text by Neerja Deodhar | Photographs by Zahra Amiruddin

Days begin very early at the far end of Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks. Here, the air is a strange mix of hot and cool, and wherever you look, you will see ice – long slabs of ice, crushed crystals of ice, small blocks of ice — melting in the morning sun.

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Far from the madding crowd of the fish market, where catch is traded every minute, is a quieter ice industry, which ensures the fish that reaches Mumbai’s homes and restaurants remains fresh.

Documentary filmmaker Niyantha Shekar found that this mini-industry, which runs for close to 17 hours every day, is fuelled by the work of men from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, who turn slabs of ice into a form that can be used to store fish. Their labour has a repetitive, almost rhythmic nature, and this is translated into the visuals of Niyantha’s short film, Baraf, which documents what a day in their life is like.

***

Around 50 years ago, a couple of young men came to Mumbai from this North Indian town to find work, eventually taking up these jobs at the Dock. Word about the availability of jobs spread back at home, and soon enough, men from other families came to Mumbai too. Unnao’s teenage boys continue to arrive at the Docks to earn a livelihood.

For many, this is the first time they have got a glimpse of the sea.

“Mumbai mein samundar nahi dekha, toh kya dekha? (If you haven’t seen Mumbai’s sea, what have you truly seen in the city?),” one of the older workers says to me.

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Interestingly, Niyantha provides the context about the lives of these workers right at the end of the film. Baraf doesn’t have any dialogues either, populated instead by visuals of the workers and the variety of sounds one hears in the ice industry. “We wanted to build a mood that would be immersive... We also saw Baraf as a community story and wanted the short film to convey the larger sense of their work and what a day in their lives looks like, which is why we didn't focus on any one worker's individual story through a dialogue-driven approach.”

The ice is brought to the Docks from faraway Vashi and Ambarnath in large trucks; each truck can hold slabs that collectively weigh up to 15 tonnes.

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Each slab is slid out of the truck and carried by hand – using tongs called ‘kainchi’ – and dropped into a crusher, which lets out a stream of cold, white crystals that resemble fresh snow. Sometimes, the slabs are broken into smaller blocks using a large pick. These mounds of crushed ice are shovelled into barrows called tonne-gaadis, named so because of their capacity (they can accommodate seven blocks of crushed ice).

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We see these barrows – filled with ice that glistened in the sunlight – being wheeled to the edge of the dock. Waiting on the other side are boats heading out to the sea; these boats and the fishermen in them will be away for weeks.

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A fabric contraption resembling an assembly line connects these boats to the barrows. In it flow steady streams of ice from the barrow into the boats, creating the most wonderful ‘sloosh’-ing sound and letting out white vapour.

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“I wanted it to be driven by the sounds and visuals of the process. The idea was to recreate the rhythm – the work that happens here is repetitive and relentless,” says Niyantha.

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The ice makes for a very visually compelling subject.

In Baraf, the whiteness of the ice is striking, allowing it to become one of the protagonists of the film.

“We considered using a monochromatic colour scheme, but the colours in the surroundings stood out… In a sense, we didn’t have a strong enough reason to use black-and-white,” Niyantha explains.

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We are witness to a particularly warm moment: Some of the men from Unnao recognise Niyantha. He shows them the film on his phone, and they are visibly delighted.

As we sit down to talk to some of the workers while they take a break, I realise just how cold their workplace was. Rows and rows of slabs – pale blue in colour – were stacked against each other in the trucks.

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Standing inside a truck feels like being in a small air-conditioned room. In fact, the cold is palpable even if one stands a few feet away. When we halt near a crusher which is belting out smoke and ice in equal parts, some shrapnel of ice falls on our faces and clothes.

It’s a surprise the workers’ hands don’t go numb every day.

This is work cut out for young people with immense strength, but men aged anywhere between 18 and 40 are engaged in it. Some of them have been working at the Docks for many decades.

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Many parts of the process are executed with bare hands, which means extended exposure to very cold ice. Hard labour of this kind is bound to be accompanied by occupational hazards: “Back pain and blisters are everyday health problems. They drink in the morning and evening to ease the pain,” Niyantha says.

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***

The workers share a camaraderie which goes beyond the fact that they hail from the same district and do the same job. They sit together and finish each other’s sentences when we speak to them. But there are no romanticised stories about them sharing meals though; their cruel work hours don’t allow for it. In fact, there is no assigned lunch time, and if you skip a meal, you have to wait for the next break to eat.

Breaks are few and far in between – that is, every time there is no boat waiting at the dock.

“Lucknow is the best city in the country,” declares a proud Mukesh Verma, “Mumbai pasand hai, par majboori hai… Mumbai mein peit bharta hai (I like Mumbai, but I don’t have a choice when it comes to living here, because this is where I can earn a living).” Mukesh is hinting at the larger issue of a lack of jobs in Unnao and areas surrounding it; why else would men of an employable age move so far away from their homes?

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“Most people here have tagged along with someone else from Unnao who found a job here. Close to a 1,000 residents of Unnao have worked here, and many of them have held jobs at the Docks for a decade,” Mukesh informs. He traces the first migration to the Docks to 1975.

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The ice industry gives these men seasonal employment; no work happens during two months of the monsoon season, which is when they go back home. For the rest of the year, they live at the Docks. This might prompt one to think that the workers get used to the conditions of their jobs and workplace, but this is far from true.

Mukesh remarks that his hands have become stronger, but that the smells of the Docks are a constant irritant.

“I wouldn’t recommend this life to others,” he says. The workers earn anywhere between Rs 15,000 – Rs 20,000 per month.

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Hindi isn’t the only language spoken in this mini-industry; the managers of these trucks and workers are Maharashtrians from Mumbai and other cities in the state. And the hierarchical divide between managers and workers is quite stark. The other community that speaks Marathi here is the koli community – the fishermen and women.

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Niyantha and the cinematographer of Baraf, Anirudh Ganapathy, initially intended to only write a photo-essay on the ice workers; the idea for a short documentary, which would be shot over three days, came only later. “But this photo-essay defined the visual language we adopted while making the film. We used very wide angles, partly because we were waiting for the action to happen, and partly because we didn’t want to get in the way,” Niyantha explains. He cites Bert Haanstra’s Glass and Sergei Loznitsa’s Factory as two documentaries which influenced him; these films ‘show’, rather than ‘tell’ through dialogue.

“Their work is so cyclical and similar that we could shoot different parts on different days, and it would still look like a 24-hour cycle,” he adds. But Baraf also includes visuals of the lulls in between and after work – of the labourers resting, playing cards. It picks up on small details like how the workers begin kicking the slabs into the crushers instead of using tongs as they grow wearier.

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Such a story can easily be exoticised, Niyantha acknowledges. “It was hugely important for us to not romanticise or exoticise the work of these men at the Docks, and we thought about this hard before we started filming… The camera observes the activity from a slight distance and everything is shot at regular speed (as opposed to slow-motion which can sometimes create a larger-than-life feeling and a mood that is not natural). Our goal was to create a film that was representative of what we saw over the course of our research – that this is labour that plays an almost invisible yet significant role in sustaining the city's largest fish market.”

Baraf was selected by National Geographic for its Short Film Showcase. Watch the film here:

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