Baraf: The Untold Story of Mumbai’s ‘Ice-Breakers’
Mumbai, Maharashtra

Walk a few blocks from the heart of Colaba, and you will find yourself in front of the Sassoon Fish Market — the biggest wholesale fish market in all of Mumbai. Opened in 1875, these docks are Mumbai’s oldest wet docks. A visit to the place, serves a sensory explosion, punctuated by a cacophony of noises and the humdrum rhythm of life. People from all over Mumbai come here to make their daily purchases, and the main fish market has been serving patrons for years.

The Sassoon Docks are a reflection of the Maximus City of Mumbai itself.

Just as Mumbai is replete with migrant stories, so too are the Sassoon Docks where people from all over the country come in search of vocations. Baraf, a short doc by filmmaker Niyantha Shekhar, is one such story of the community of Unnao, that has practiced the job of “ice-breaking” for over five decades now. The untold story of this community brings the spotlight on this marginalised community which forms an integral part of the Docks.

Shot and produced by Anirudh Ganapathy and director Niyantha Shekhar over three days, the film came about very organically. Says Niyantha who has produced and edited the film, “We had set out to visit the Sassoon Art Project — a month long art project that witnessed exhibitions of up to over 30 artistes of international repute. And it was then that we decided to put together a photo essay. As filmmakers, we were naturally drawn to the culture and the people of the place, and upon discovering the community of “ice-breakers,” we knew just the subject to capture on lens.”

Niyantha Shekar who once used to head content and strategy for filmmaker Bharatbala’s short documentary initiative, was driven to document the lives of this community through an “observational lens.”

The story focusses on the community of Unnao, which originates from Uttar Pradesh and is mostly engaged in farming and the tanneries. Niyantha says, “Migrant labourers from Unnao have travelled to Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks for the last 50 years, in order to ply the trade of ‘breaking ice.’”

“These migrant workers spend six months on the dockyard and the other six at home. You can watch the hardworking workers persevere through the day — from the time that the boats dock at the fishing dock, till the time that the catch is bundled up in lorries. Most workers have been working here for decades. “The youngest worker we saw was around the 16 years of age, the oldest had worked these lands for over twenty years,” reveals Niyantha.

The workers put in hectic man-hours. “The work involves hard labour and these workers use handcarts to transport tonnes of ice through the day. As a result, the workers suffer from lifestyle ailments such as back pains and blisters. This is a fight for survival, even as the practitioners remain matter-of-fact about the work they do,” he adds.

The filmmaker reveals what he witnessed. “The ice lorries come in with big ice blocks from the factories. The workers use a pair of tongs called “Kainchi” that is used to drag the ice out of the lorries. Each tong weighs about 4 kgs and is made of iron. The ice is then transported to the crushers using the signature handcart called the “tonne gaadi,” which can support a tonne of ice. Seven of these blocks of ice make a tonne.”

Shekar tells us, “Two workers work on one handcart; while one person swings the cart on his shoulders, the other gives it support from behind. Once transported to the crusher, each block of ice is then broken down to big chunks using a screwdriver called “Tocha”. The broken ice blocks are then fed to the crusher, which makes for the ice filings,” explains Niyantha.

Once the ice filings are procured, they are then pushed to fishing boats and trawlers that need the ice. “A simple runner slide mechanism is then used to slide the ice filings under the footboards of the boats. As one boat is stocked up, another one takes its place. Once the boats are back, the ice is similarly delivered to fish sellers on the dock as well as to the fish vendors using the trucks. Ice is needed in every aspect of fishing from the time of the catch to the time of delivery. About 40 lorries come and go through the day,” the director adds.

As per Niyantha, “The film was shot in an observational style with an emphasis on sound design, in order to capture the relentless, repetitive rhythm of hard labour.” Baraf was shot on a borrowed Canon 7D over three days — starting at 6 am at the docks, till late evening. To film this, the filmmakers set “still frames” a short distance from where the action unfolded, and focused on getting long-shots. “This allowed us to wait and watch how things took shape at the Docks without being too intrusive. Soon enough, the workers began to ignore the camera to give the crew full access.”

The real story here is the fact that Sassoon Docks is a working manifestation of many micro-ecosystems, one of which is “Ice-breaking,” the focus of the film. Similar micro-ecosystems exist for oil, fishing, transportation etc. The interesting thing about Ice is that it is essential every step of the way. “Such communities, outside the majoritarian workforce, keep the Sassoon Docks thriving,” reckons Niyantha.

Watch the short doc BARAF now on TheVibe. Streaming now:

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All the brilliant humans that made this happen

Kartik Rao


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