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The flamingos of Sewri are captured in a stirring documentary by a sister duo
Ashima Narain, 31, is shooting a courting sequence of flamingos at Sewri. The problem is that the flamingos, around 20,000 of them, are walking on the sludge, which is created by the waste coming from the nearby factories. But this sludge is dangerous: if you are a hefty person and step on it, you will sink. It is like quicksand. “But I wanted to take a shot of them courting and I needed to get close,” says Ashima, who is slim and of light build. “So, just before the tide came in, I went out.” Soon, she is so engrossed in the filming she forgets that the water has started to come in. “Then I realise my feet is wet and I start to walk back quickly,” she says. “But, when I am about 15m away from the edge, I start sinking. I am holding my camera and tripod above my head and I am in sludge, which is thigh deep and I could not get out.” There are 15 men watching Ashima and they are unable to do anything, because if they step on the sludge, they will also sink.
Suddenly, one of the men has a brainwave. He goes to a nearby home and calls out to his six-year-old son. “He walks easily on the sludge and takes my camera and tripod and it is only then I could use my hands and am able to come out,” says Ashima.
Work of love
For the first-time director, this is indeed a close shave. But she smiles when she says this, because in the end, it is worth it. A commercial photographer, the idea to do a documentary on flamingos came rather accidentally, when she read in a magazine of how every year, thousands of flamingos would fly from the Rann of Kutch and, possibly, Iran to the mud flats of Sewri for several months. They came because of the prevalence of algae, which they love to eat. Ironically, the effluents and sewage that is spewed into Sewri bay accelerates this algal growth.
“When I went to see them for the first time, I was appalled,” says Ashima. “There were all these factories all around and a shipyard and beyond them was this huge mud sludge. But then you saw this sea of pink…” Ashima’s voice trails off and there is a look of bliss on her face.
“I took a year to shoot the documentary,” she continues. “Because, unlike in feature films, where you can plan the shoot because human beings are acting, we cannot tell the flamingos that, even though it is not the mating season, ‘please do the mating dance for us.’”
And she discovered one interesting phenomenon during the shooting. Whenever she wore pink, she could get much closer to them. “So I would always wear the colour pink,” she says.
Asked why she made the film, her sister Ruchi, a Bollywood director and scriptwriter, who acted as producer of the documentary, says, “Ashima felt that we had this amazing phenomenon in the city and nobody knew about it, let alone, the rest of the world. In other countries, they will just have three pelicans or tortoises and they will make a park and people will come from other countries to see them.” Interestingly, the film has been funded by the sisters themselves; Ashima saved money from the fees she got as a commercial photographer.
Desolate and silent
One hot afternoon, I do go across to see the mud flats. Of course, at this time of the year, there are no flamingos, (they come in November and return in May) but there is an Afghan moneylender, Abdul Hamid Khan, 32, who is here to collect money from the workers of the nearby Colgate factory. It is silent and a stiff breeze is blowing. There is the Sewri fort at one side and a grove of mangroves on the other and the mud flats in front of me. “The sight of the flamingos is lovely,” says Khan, 32. “I come here often to see them.”
I go down to the edge and press my feet on the sludge. It is hard and when I mention this to Khan, he laughs and says I need to go about 10 feet further and then I would sink like a stone.
On another evening, I go across to Fun Republic to see Ashima’s documentary, ‘In the Pink’. It is being aired during the ‘First Films’ feature film festival. It is a moving documentary, with an excellent script by Jerry Pinto, with touches of humour and pathos, and stunning cinematography by Sunjoy Monga. The sight of flamingos in full flight makes the heart soar. It is also funny, the way they bend their knees while walking. (see box). Out of 40 hours of footage, only 24 minutes were used. However, the documentary highlighted a bit of bad news. Studies have shown that there are alarming levels of heavy metals in water and sediment, which, in turn is affecting the algae. So the question is: how long will it be before it starts manifesting in the flamingos?
After the screening, teacher Shilpa Megharaj, 27, tell me she likes the documentary. “They have covered various aspects and presented the facts well. The photography and the commentary are good.” Another enthusiast is Laxmikant Deshpande, of the Center for Environment Education: “This is one of the best education movies I have seen in a long time. It is short and to the point and easy to understand.”
So what next for Ashima? Well, she has got a fellowship from the UK government and Discovery Channel to do another documentary on the dancing bears of north India. So, after flamingos, it’s bears and it looks like, for a while, commercial photography will be taking a backrest.
Flamingo Fast Facts
There are six species of flamingos found worldwide. Out of them, two come to Mumbai: the greater and the lesser.
The former is the tallest of all the flamingos, while the latter is the smallest.
The staple diet of flamingos is algae, which contains a carotenoid pigment that turns their feathers pink.
The greater flamingo has a more varied diet of crutaceans, insects, small fish and algae.
The lesser flamingos eat more algae, and therefore they have stronger coloration.
Flamingos are born gray. It takes 3-5 years for a flamingo to acquire its pink adult colouration.
All flamingos are filter feeders. To feed, it holds its beak upside down in the water, then uses its tongue as a piston to pump water through a fine grid of interlocking hair-like structures, which trap food.
The lesser flamingo can sift through 32 litres of water an hour looking for food, although it only requires 60g of algae a day.
Flamingos are naturally gregarious birds. They indulge in flamboyant and infectious group courtship displays.
Life expectancy is about 50 years