Wade is about the Sundarbans, but the events in the film take place in Park Street, in front of Flury's, its iconic patisserie, where a battle breaks out between humans and tigers. We are in 2040, in a post climate change world. The Sundarbans, which have protected inland Bengal with its mangroves as a buffer against storms and cyclones, are gone, and now it's Kolkata's turn, which remains half underwater.
Wade doesn't show anything that studies haven't predicted already. Indeed, if the continuous rise in sea-levels drown the vulnerable Sundarbans in the near future, Kolkata, which is just an hour and a half away, will be next in line. The city will drown and this is how it will look. People from the Sundarbans will migrate northward—more than a million already have, according to a National Geographic report from 2019—so will the crocodiles, mudskippers, and the tigers. And it won't make for a pretty sight.
Upamanyu Bhattacharya and Kalp Sanghvi's 11 minute animated short isn't interested in giving us sermons about saving the planet, because it never works. Instead, like dystopian fiction, it drops us bang in the middle of these apocalyptic scenes (there is not much background, except a present-day satellite view of the Sundarbans). The big problem staring at us after global warming is the mass migration that's going to follow the loss of land; Wade, which is described as "a climate change horror story" and is playing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, wants to explore this aspect of it. In the film, we don't see anyone except a band of environmental refugees—including a blind child who is taken around on a raft made from plastic bottles—but the city walls are filled with anti-refugee graffiti.
"We were much more concerned with the choices and ethics of being in a post climate change age rather than having a simplistic message like 'Do this and it will not happen'," says Bhattacharya. "We wanted to portray something very real and tell the audience that this will happen to you. So what are you going to do about it?" says Sanghvi.
The filmmakers hope to draw the audience into the world of the story, and if that makes them think about the climate change future, they would look up "all the information already out there, as to what kind of things we can do to mitigate, what kind of people we need to vote into power."
Bhattacharya and Sanghvi got interested in making a film on the subject in 2016, after they read an article about Ghoramara, an island in the Sundarban delta complex that was disappearing. (Not Fun Fact: The Sundarbans extended up to Calcutta at the end of the 18th Century, before the East India Company started clearing large swathes of the forest). They started reading academic papers, journals, and books like The Uninhabitable Earth or The Great Derangement, which led them to discover the links between climate change and mass migration.
"Because we've had a lot of storytelling about evil AI (Artificial Intelligence), in a way, we have some kind of an opinion as to what we want in the ethic of data sharing etc to be like. So it goes with climate change," says Bhattacharya
"People think climate change isn't an immediate issue but that's the problem. It's slowly happening and there'll be at a point where it's happened and cannot be reversed," says Sanghvi. "That's where the need for storytelling around it comes," adds Bhattacharya. "For example, just because we've had a lot of storytelling about evil AI (Artificial Intelligence), in a way, we have some kind of an opinion as to what we want in the ethic of data sharing etc to be like. So it goes with climate change. We need to begin envisioning reasonable futures, something within the scope of believability." (If anything, the Amphan cyclone in May, which both ravaged the Sundarbans and paralysed Kolkata, makes it a little more believable).
Films about issues tend to get heavy-handed in what they are trying to say. Wade is able to translate activism into art, with big ideas, attention to detail, and a visual language that is all its own. The striking animation style draws from the local art of Bengal and Bhattacharya mentions the Shantiniketan school of art being one of the guiding forces, but its real strength is its emphasis on the human condition.
The characters we see in Wade are modelled on the people from Sundarbans in terms of their anatomical structure, that "show the effects of hunger, water logging and many many damaging years of living life on the edge of survival". The eyes are like that of a ghost—all white, with the pupil reduced to a dot. It's not just a stylistic flourish and there's a logic behind it. "It shows a sense of anxiety and a sense of being constantly exposed to the sun. The pupils shrink, shrink and shrink, and have constricted to a point," says Bhattacharya.
The film pivots on an elaborately staged, tense action sequence where a tiger larger than others arrive at the scene by walking on water. Keeping with the scientific foundation for the film, the filmmakers find a reason for it by combining the concept of 'super-species' with a supernatural tale they came across when they were exploring the tiger lore of Sundarbans, where, as they write in a blog post on the making of the film, "a villager recounts with great terror a tiger walking across the water as if it were a sheet of glass, coming straight at him".
Equal attention was paid to the backgrounds, which sometimes drew from their immediate surroundings, especially when they sat and worked in one of the cafes in Park Street. "We were trying to really be able to smell the place," says Bhattacharya.
Bhattacharya, 26, and Sanghvi, 28, along with four other twenty-something animators— Gaurav Wakankar, Isha Mangalmurti, Shaheen Sheriff, and Anwaar Alam—run a studio in Kolkata called Ghost Animation. (All of them are National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad pass-outs from its Animation Film Design department). Each team member is represented on their website in the form of their spirit animals–click on it and it leads to their Instagram profiles. Their showreel suggests a small but promising body of work that blend catchy, beautiful animation with a social consciousness.
The projects include everything from awareness and tourism videos, to a comic anthology for a music album, to animated-loops created for a shopping mall in South Delhi, to title sequences in mainstream feature films; they recently did a Miyazaki-inspired music video for AR Rahman's daughter, Khatija Rahman's single.
Ghost's first major work is a bunch of four short films, including Wade, which they plan to release on a streaming platform after completing their festival run. Before the lockdown started, these films, which have disparate styles and themes, were screened in 5 cities in India, where they were shown in one sitting.
According to Bhattacharya and Sanghvi, the emergence of a number of indie animation studios with a "strong and graphic creative voice" is exciting—Ghost is 4 years old, and wants to create a culture of good business practises like paying people on time and working with fresh graduates.
But apart from occasional interesting works like Gitanjali Rao's Bombay Rose, Shilpa Ranade's Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya and Somnath Pal's short film Death of a Father, the animation scene in India is yet to come together as a movement. "A lot of people have to be doing things at the same time for it to be consistent," says Bhattacharya, "We also need to look at things like having more comics, more picture books, having a lot of such things where animated stories can come from, when people will be like, 'Yeah that's what I want to watch'. That's how Japan did it."
Wade can be viewed on the DIFF website till November 8