There’s a lot about the climate crisis making people around the world stressed, anxious, even depressed. The Himalayas are melting, forests are burning, and coastal towns are sinking. There are research-backed projections about major cities in South and Southeast Asia being underwater by 2050. We are finally seeing the repercussions of man-made follies around us, right now, in our immediate surroundings.
And while the current events, and the possibility of more, are terrifying, nothing comes close to the visuals that Wade, an animation short film created by Kolkata-based illustrators and filmmakers Upamanyu Bhattacharyya and Kalp Sanghvi, presents to us. Currently in the middle of an India tour (screenings in New Delhi will be held between December 1 and 3), Wade puts forth a chilling 10-minute reality of what the Sundarbans—the 4,000-square miles stretch of land along the Bay of Bengal that is home to 7.5 million people and the ferocious Royal Bengal Tigers—will probably look like when it gets inundated by the sea in the near future.
If you know the context, you’ll quickly understand how the film captures the future of a climate crisis that’s unfolding in this part of the Indian subcontinent right at this moment. The Sundarbans has the world’s largest uninterrupted expanse of mangrove forest, which not only feeds the human and wild population but also serves as a natural barrier for the cities in the region against floods and cyclones. However, recent reports have shown that meltwater from the Himalayas is flooding the rivers that crisscross through this huge patch of land, leaving the region very vulnerable to natural disasters, deaths and destruction. As a result, millions have been reported to have migrated up north for survival.
The film opens up to a dystopian but very real future, a “tense day” for a few climate change refugees in Kolkata who run into a pride of displaced Royal Bengal Tigers, a species that currently finds its stronghold in the Sundarbans, and are known to have a unique characteristic of swimming through its saline waters and more terrifyingly, hunting humans since centuries. There’s also a tinge of magical realism to the film, one that borrows from the folklore and stories around the Sundarbans and Bengal in general.
“[This region] has a lot of magic and supernatural twists to the idea of tigers, so we wanted to bring that into the story as well as a visual vessel for the idea of adaptation and evolution,” says Bhattacharyya. The filmmakers use survival as a key tool to tell the story, one where the characters—be it the man or beast—are pushed to the brink in the middle of this “ecological turmoil” and they, along with the viewers, are left to navigate—or “wade”—through the crisis and the city.
Bhattacharyya, 25, a native of Kolkata—the capital of West Bengal—tells VICE how spending a lot of time walking around their city made them more aware of how their own hometown is “one of the first cities in line to suffer the effects of sea-level rise because of climate change.” The Sundarbans has historically protected the people of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, which includes Kolkata. And people are getting more and more vocal about their anxieties about the future, he says.
“In a city like Kolkata, which is low lying, overpopulated and ageing, it was beginning to get scary when we were imagining what the city would look like in a few years,” says Bhattacharyya. “In a way, a lot of Kolkata was built after beating the forest back towards the delta, so it seemed natural that climate change would cause a reversal in that cycle.”
The key departure points of the film is mass migration, ecological disturbances and the indirect consequences of sea-level rise. And while the sinking, dystopian city presents itself as the ominous, apocalyptic protagonist in Wade, the depiction of humans languishing in this scenario—the climate change refugees—plays out dominantly and hauntingly. “It's a fact that the people who contribute the least to climate change will suffer its effects the most severely,” says Sanghvi, 27.
“So the model of the universe we narrowed down on involved the wealthy, those capable of abandoning Kolkata when the slow flooding renders the city unliveable, with the others being left behind, figuring out how to survive in the shell of the city.” The addition of Royal Bengal tigers as inhabitants of this dystopian vision is as real as it gets. A study has forecasted that Royal Bengal tigers will be wiped off by 2070 due to a combination of climate change and sea-level rise.
Bhattacharyya and Sanghvi worked with around 30 artists from across the country on animation, background art and production, and the project was crowdfunded by 146 backers. The effort of this collaborative project shows in several layers of nuance, be it the research that went behind it, or the sinister soundscape that intersperses the stark visuals. Even the graphic style and form are rooted in the earthy aesthetic of Kolkata.
We also caught a rather interesting reference to the current climate of intolerance towards refugees. In one of the scenes, a wall is painted with the words, “Send back! Save Kolkata from climate change refugees.” This reference is brief, a few seconds-long perhaps, but is prominent in its messaging. “We feel that the world, in general, is becoming increasingly closed to the idea of having 'other' people in 'their' spaces,” says Sanghvi.
“Rhetoric around the world is swinging towards keeping people out and sending them 'back where they belong'. Fear has been feeding more fear, and we're concerned that such a mindset is not compatible with a future where climate change forces people to move in huge numbers. Can a person who is fiercely anti-immigration at the moment expect consideration in the near future when his city gets flooded and forces him to go elsewhere? Ideally, yes! We hope we can slowly move towards a more inclusive world where we're less territorial.”
In the meantime, the film, which has been produced by Kolkata-based Ghost Animation, is gearing up for festivals and hopes to get some opportunities from online streaming platforms soon. And as Bhattacharyya and Sanghvi prepare for reactions—even disagreements—they just want to bring the reality of this subject closer to people.
“We strongly believe that climate change won't upend the world using a single Hollywood-style mega-tsunami, but it'll creep into our lives slowly and almost irritatingly with hundreds and hundreds of smaller events,” says Bhattacharyya. “We'd definitely like to explore stories based on this even more, dealing with what life looks like just before, during and in the aftermath of climate change events.”
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