If you want to see rough-and-ready experiments in residential architecture and neighborhood construction, look no further than the world’s largest slums. Every day, straitened conditions and high density force the millions upon millions who live in them to improvise creative solutions to the challenges of urban survival using whatever materials and power — both terms broadly defined — happen to lay at hand. In his short New Mumbai, filmmaker Tobias Revell turns his lens toward India, host to some of the most vast and complex slums around, and discovers a highly unconventional material, a sort of organic infrastructure, in use in the knocked-together neighborhoods of Dharavi: giant mushrooms.
Actually, Revell doesn’t discover the mushrooms; he invents them, telling a science-fiction story, if not a terribly far-fetched one, in the plainspoken, street-level style of a developing-world documentary. He even comes up with a semi-plausible explanation for how each of these miracle mushrooms generates enough power to run an entire building: biological samples leak from Amsterdam into the Mumbai gangland, and a few shadowy types struggle to engineer them into a new kind of narcotic. When that doesn’t work, Dharavi’s science-savvy residents — refugees from a religious war — get to work on adapting them to a variety of life-improving uses. Revell, no stranger to speculative projects that tap into modern currents of thought, has taken the zeitgeist’s notions of a new partnership between the city and nature, but run them to an intriguing extreme. And you can’t deny how cool those mushrooms look sprouting from the rooftops.