Shaunak Sen’s ‘All That Breathes’ and a front row seat to the apocalypse

‘All That Breathes’, Shaunak Sen’s Sundance-premiering documentary, is an urgent commentary on the social fabric of Delhi and its apocalyptic skies

Early on in Shaunak Sen’s documentary, All That Breathes — while carefully examining and suturing an injured bird before them — two brothers discuss the potential ramifications of a nuclear war based on a news report one of them came across. If it wasn’t for the bird on the table, you’d have guessed it was just another Delhi basement: crammed with boxes, peeling walls, and the soot-coated bulbs illuminating just enough.

If you ask the 34-year-old director — beyond the casual references to the said nuclear obliteration — Delhi is already in the throes of an apocalypse and the brothers have front row seats to it. And he has captured this in All That Breathes, the only Indian documentary to have a world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, USA (scheduled to be held virtually from January 20).

“Essentially, the film is about the relationship of the people of Delhi with the polluted skies, through the lenses of those black dots [the silent casualty of the city’s darkening skies, the black kite] that we often see gliding through it,” he says. Through the story of the two brothers, Nadeem Shahzad (44) and Mohammad Saud (40), Sen wanted to capture the fact that “nature is not happening elsewhere but right in the heart of our urban jungles”.

Delhi-based director Shaunak Sen | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Black spots, dark lives

The story of the brothers appealed to Sen because they were treating black kites selflessly from their basement while also running a soap dispenser business on the side. (Sen was actively looking for people who work with birds and reached out to the duo after coming across their story in various news reports.) Through their bird rehabilitation organisation, Wildlife Rescue, the brothers treat more than 2,000 raptors a year.

Shahzad and Saud are not trained veterinarians. Sen explains they both developed a “hypnotic fascination” towards black kites during their childhood in Old Delhi. “According to Islam, tossing meat to the kites is virtuous. This one time, two decades ago, when they came across an injured kite and took it to a government bird hospital in Delhi, they were turned away under the pretext that it [the bird of prey] was non-vegetarian.” The brothers had then proceeded to operate on the said kite themselves. It helped that they were into bodybuilding — poring over scores of Flex magazine issues aided them in understanding the world of wounds, tears, and fractures.

A black kite | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

But as the documentary progresses, the birds from owls to falcons falling from the skies due to the twin effects of pollution and lethal kite-flying enthusiasts only keep increasing. Even the black kites — migratory raptors who visit Delhi from Russia during the winter months — are injured and can never go back. “The injured birds keep coming to them in cardboard boxes carted in auto rickshaws, their personal relationship goes through ups and downs, and the social violence of Delhi percolates in their neighbourhood too. Yet they soldier on with a wry sense of humour.”

In the documentary, as environmental toxicity and social unrest in Delhi escalates, the relationship between this Muslim family and the neglected kite forms a poetic chronicle of the city’s collapsing ecology and rising social tensions.

Malaise of the urban jungle

The team tracked the brothers over three years to get a ringside view to their lives, and through that, the larger story of Delhi itself. “If you look at anything long enough, things are revealed to you,” says Sen. “For me, it was important to situate the good work of the brothers in a larger setting. The best books or films that I personally love touch upon the whole through the particular.”

A still from ‘All That Breathes’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The documentary is peppered with languid shots of rats scurrying around for food in the heart of the bustling city; pigs framing the edges of an elite township; and even a turtle moving over garbage bags, contemplating the endless traffic on the road. Sen and his team spent the better part of the shooting schedule patiently and painstakingly getting these shots right, as they formed the heart of the film.

“The city wants to give you the impression that nature is happening elsewhere,” he says. “But we live in a time when the finger span of the lizards has increased because they now have to navigate concrete homes. So, we used the story of the brothers as a springboard to show how the social and ecological malaise of the city has truly pervaded the world of all that breathes.”

Sen insists that the documentary is not a social justice film, at least not explicitly, and neither is it a nature documentary because “no one in the team simply has that skill set”. It does, however, rely on the cold facts unfolding before us. Or as he puts it: “We’ve tried to render the scientific into the poetic.”

Being the only Indian documentary to premiere at Sundance is an honour Sen certainly does not take for granted. And he credits the universal appeal of the film to its themes. “The brothers provided me with an emotional crutch and then there are fewer things in life more universal than the man-animal relationship.”

The Sundance Film Festival is on from January 20-30, on sundance.org.

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