This fictional documentary tells the story of the fungi that ended up hugging the walls of Dharavi. During the Indian Civil War, the Dharavi slums of Mumbai were flooded with refugees looking to escape the conflict. The Mumbai authorities, distracted by defence of the city and facing an already overpopulated and poverty-stricken slum, could do little to maintain a semblance of civilised life in the area and it rapidly became lawless and dangerous to outsiders.
Sometime later, a cache of genetically engineered fungal samples appeared from the Netherlands through the criminal networks of Mumbai. Originally a prototype of a product intended as a new type of building material for rich European firms, criminal gangs harboured a vain hope that it might provide new marketable narcotic opportunities. Although this endeavour failed, the collective drive and expertise of the refugees managed to turn these genetically engineered fungal samples into a new type of resource providing heat, light and building material for the refugees. Dharavi rapidly evolved its own micro-economy based around the mushrooms.
Through interviews with key people — policing authorities, the original creators of the material and the people who re-engineered it — the life story of this strange infrastructure is revealed. The documentary also examines what this innovation has meant for the slum and how it has led to it forming itself around its own micro-economy, separate from the maligned governance of the city.
In order to best understand a technology, it’s important to consider unintentional uses. While synthetic biology and genetic engineering have well-publicised prospects of enhancing the lives of people in developed communities and lowering environmental impact, very little has been done to understand how this will trickle down into less developed areas. New Mumbai comes from a culture of what the Indians call ‘Jugaad’ (a term applied to a creative or innovative idea providing a quick, alternative way of solving or fixing a problem); but we can consider the cheap cell networks of central Africa, the small arms manufacturers of the Middle East, and the bicycles of China. It’s the lower end of the glamour spectrum where innovation and change happens most vitally and viscerally.”