Shaunak Sen’s remarkable documentary, All That Breathes, that was nominated for an Academy Award, is set in India’s capital city, New Delhi. The film depicts the altruistic efforts of two Muslim brothers, Saud and Nadeem, who rescue and cure the black kites that fall from the city’s polluted sky. The brothers have dedicated their entire lives to the birds as they work tirelessly to keep them safe, treating thousands of sick birds in their care. The bond between their family and the birds creates a lyrical but telling account of the city’s deteriorating ecology, where escalating social tensions against the Muslim community and the environmental toxicity of the city cast a critical eye on a society on the brink of destruction.
In All That Breathes, the mission to offer care to the injured birds is divided among three individuals – Saud, Nadeem and Salik. Saud provides medical help to the injured birds in the makeshift clinic created in the basement; Nadeem looks after the managerial aspects of the job, such as making grant applications, maintaining the equipment, and trying to set up a better space for their clinic. Salik collects the injured kites in a carton and bringing them to the clinic, as well as assists the brothers in their work. The trio consider their job to be pious because feeding kites earns them sawab (religious credit). It is believed that when flying creatures eat meat, they also eat away one’s difficulties. The seeds for such selfless deeds were planted in the minds of the two brothers by their late mother. But day by day, the difficulties in their jobs are piling up. The brother’s application for foreign funds gets rejected, the machine used for pounding meat and the refrigerator, used for clinical purposes, are both malfunctioning, the environment is deteriorating, and more and more kites are falling from the sky, heightening their load of work. At the same time, the implementation of the controversial and discriminatory Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) gives rise to communal flare ups in Delhi, targeting Muslims, posing a threat to their lives. Through these obstacles, the brothers courageously tread their path of protecting the scavengers with a generous spirit.
All That Breathes begins with a long, uninterrupted and stunningly choreographed shot of a filthy space inundated with rats, making a symbolic reference to a city where the existence of rodents is alike to that of humans. The kites are scavengers and help maintain a balance in the eco-system, preventing additional squalor from contaminating the environment. So these creatures, just like humans, are having to adapt to hostile environments that are primarily man-made. The narrative also draws a sharp parallel between toxic environmental hazards and the rising Islamophobia in Indian society. In a dinner conversation centered around the CAA, Nadeem is worried that because of an error in one of his father’s documents, the old man is likely to face difficulties with the administration. At the same time, we also witness an extremely heartwarming scene with Salik, where his mother worriedly informs him over the phone about the rising communal tension in the city. After the conversation ends, he looks tense and to calm himself, he takes out a baby squirrel from his shirt’s pocket and pats the furry creature. This is a sublime moment within the film that speaks volumes about how stability between humans and animals can help to make a better world. The makeshift basement where the brothers work at times is also composed in a way to show how the area is divided into two parts, wherein the other section, another Muslim worker is carrying out his mechanical job. This further symbolizes how different the world of the brothers is from others.
The cinematography by Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi results in some stunning and sensual visual imagery that greatly aids the narrative to come alive through meticulously composed frames and some elaborately choreographed shots. The close-ups of the kites, insects, worms, lizards and other creatures immensely augment the story telling and create a mood that lingers long after the film is over. Charlotte Munch Bengtsen’s deft and layered editing establishes a pace and rhythm that is languid but profoundly in synch with the world of the two brothers. Niladri Shekhar Roy creates a highly evocative sound design, skillfully balancing the ambience and music, often letting the silences in the film speaking volumes.
All That Breathes deserves to be seen because it is a contemplative, honest work of art that neither falls into the traps of sentimentalism nor attempts didacticism in terms of animal conservation. It honours the small joys of life, the qualities of empathy, and the power of humanity to improve the state of the planet.
Hindi, Documentary, Color