‘21 Hours of Toil, Travel and Trade’, a documentary, zooms unobtrusively into the daily grind of Rajamma, a fish vendor from a coastal village in Thiruvananthapuram, who refuses to be beaten by the odds
Amidst a sea of fish and men in lungis hitched up to their knees at the Thoothukudi fish auction centre, Rajamma stands her ground. Perhaps the only woman buying fish in bulk from the auction, the 50-year-old fisherwoman from Cheriyathura in Thiruvananthapuram is a rarity.
21 Hours of Toil, Travel and Trade, a documentary made on her by Sunitha CV, captures the grit and determination of this woman who has been selling fish since the age of 10.
“In those days, we had to walk all the way from the coast to the city, about 20 to 25 km every day. There were no autorickshaws or buses then. My sister and I make ends meet due to the sea’s bounty and so did our parents,” Rajamma says.
A day with Rajamma
It is a day in her life that is unspooled in the film as the camera follows her, from 3 am to midnight. Speaking directly to the camera, Rajamma, in a matter of fact tone, touches upon her challenges, the daily grind and how her children have done her proud.
“It is her attitude, resilience and fierce independence that I wanted to highlight in the film. In fact, that is why I made the docu. Three of her five children are abroad and she had returned from Dubai just before the lockdown. But Rajamma does not envisage a future where she is dependent on her children,” says Sunitha.
Once she identified her subject for her first work as director, Sunitha spent a couple of days with Rajamma and her husband in her two-room home in a hutment near the beach at Cheriyathura. She wanted to help Rajamma feel at home with the film’s team and also learn more about her before the shooting began.
The film opens with Rajamma making her way to an open mini-truck at 3 am. With a little difficulty, she manages to climb on to the back of the truck and makes herself at home. As the truck travels at breakneck speed from Thiruvananthapuram on the west coast to Thoothukudi on the east coast, Rajamma takes catnaps during the 200-km journey to attend the fish auction.
While Sunita found even one trip to be extremely exhausting for the film’s crew, she points out that come rain or shine Rajamma makes the bone-shaking journey to get the best fish for her customers.
According to Rajamma the catch is dwindling in the seas around Thiruvananthapuram due to overfishing and fierce competition has reduced opportunities for independent, small-time vendors like her. Comparing the catch to what was available in her youth, she says that while the quantity of fish has decreased, even the variety of the catch had changed. “Where are the reef cod, the pilchard and the Tongue sole?” she wonders.
A sea of challenges
Her simple question highlights problems faced by those in the fishing community who may not have access to fancy boats and equipment for fishing. Rajamma lists the reasons why she does not mind travelling 400 km every day instead of going to one the fish auctions centres in Thiruvananthapuram or Kollam. Explaining that fisherwomen like her are getting a raw deal since the best of the catch is exported or cornered by factory owners, she adds that home delivery of fish and new players in the markets have made it difficult for traditional fishmongers like her.
Produced by Magline Philomina Yohannan under the banner of Coastal Women’s Federation, Collective Phase One has co-produced the film that captures in vivid detail the hardships faced by the women who have no safety net or government support to ply their trade.
Rajamma represents the scores of weather-beaten women who travel from coastal villages in the capital city to the city by bus, autorickshaws or by foot to sell fish.
Cinematographer Agin B’s candid shots show her busy cleaning, gutting and cutting the fish at her makeshift outlet in the city where she sells the fish. Rajamma says that she insists on cleaning all the fish for her customers though her fingers are not as nimble as they were once upon a time.
However, in the middle of her narrative, Rajamma adds that with her earnings alone she was able to bring up and educate her five children.
By the time, Rajamma cleans the place and reaches home it is nearly 10 pm. After cooking dinner in the light of a chimney, she and her husband go through the accounts of her business and go to bed by midnight. The documentary ends with Rajamma resolutely making her way to the truck at 3 am for the trip to Thoothukudi.
Edited by Ajithkumar B, the documentary is a close encounter with the women who were once indispensable in the social landscape of Kerala. It is also an indicator of how women like Rajamma are gradually being eliminated in the new scheme of things.
Sunitha says the pandemic has dealt her a double whammy. With fishing banned and social distancing in place, Rajamma has been unable to continue her work. Moreover, her makeshift outlet in the city is also facing opposition from some residents. Be that as it may, Rajamma has told Sunitha as soon as she can, she will be making that rendezvous with her mini van at 3 am.