‘All That Breathes’ – A Visual Poem on Delhi’s Kites and Much More 

MUHAMMED NOUSHAD says Shaunak Sen’s award-winning documentary ALL THAT BREATHES brings forth profound commentary on Delhi’s socio-environmental crises, through the tales of two brothers rescuing kites.

[Originally published in Maktoob Media.]

It’s rare that one gets a textbook case of finest documentary making; and All That Breathes is just that, with nuanced storytelling and top-notch technical perfection. It offers engaging characters, compelling storytelling, unambiguous yet non-preachy political statements, deep socio-environmental commentary, and above all a philosophy of life, of human-animal symbiosis.

Meticulously researched and impeccably shot, this movie by the award-winning director Shaunak Sen tells the story of two young brothers, Nadeem Shehzad, and Mohammad Saud, living in New Delhi, in an overcrowded Muslim mohalla near Shaheen Bagh, and their passion: for wildlife rescue. And the narrative explores all aspects of their work and life – emotional, spiritual, political, sociological, and environmental.

In the celebratory fuss that The Elephant Whisperers gained at the Oscar – an excellent work, of course – this fabulous film was slightly eclipsed. Both movies, in fact, have several parallels and certain unmissable differences too. Inevitably, both tell the story of human-animal bonding and reciprocity. If TEW is about an old couple rearing an orphaned elephant in Mudumalai, ATB is about two young brothers looking after innumerable black kites falling from the over-polluted Delhi skies on a daily basis. The manja, a type of glass-smeared kite-flying thread, though banned in Delhi, is the main antagonist in the lives of these poor creatures, as they are sliced up mid-air.

Although All That Breathes is primarily about two brothers’ struggles in rescuing wounded kites, the movie flies far above that, often elevating to be a telling parable about Delhi’s environmental crisis, increasing pollution, and the ways organisms adapt to climate change, unscientific and greedy levels of development, miserable governance, obvious discriminations and violence that the Muslim minority suffers. However, none of this goes on top of the other. Nor do they sound preachy.

Like a great storyteller, Shaunak Sen discretely weaves all those layers of Nadeem’s and Saud’s lives. In the process, we get to see an unexpected bunch of stories and angles; and animals, too, small and big, across the city – all sorts of birds, pigs, dogs, goats, cows, horses, monkeys, rats, lizards, frogs, flies, worms and what not! These living beings are not just juxtaposed to make the narrative interesting. Their positioning is so precise that they gleefully give the narrative a deeper aesthetic.

More strikingly, the cinematographer paints visual poetry in several shots with these otherwise ordinary beings. The shot in which a snail painstakingly navigates in the backdrop of arson in the North East Delhi anti-Muslim riots is thought-provoking. In a nutshell, a powerful reminder that you don’t inhabit the earth and the sky all alone; innumerable species co-inhabit with you, and their existence is as vital as yours, for, if they don’t exist, your life gets stuck. Take the simple statistics of what a kite does in a city: it eats an average waste of 50-60 kilograms every day from the large garbage hills you pile up. Tens of thousands of kites eat tonnes of waste and help you reduce the garbage mountains that otherwise go unabatedly high. If you take away a species from this circuit, the food circle is affected and hence the life cycle. With heavy industrial and environmental pollution, all animals learn to adapt and improvise. Nadeem notes, many lizards now have a new finger, for instance.

Nadeem and Saud, otherwise, two businessmen who deal with detergents for sustenance, rose to fame and popularity with a story that The New York Times carried. An underprivileged kite rescue center worked in a shabby unremarkable basement grew and evolved into a fully-fledged wildlife hospital on their terrace, with foreign aid coming, despite the crisis they faced – and probably would face again – under the cancellation of the Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA).

The movie takes its name from advice their mother gave Nadeem and Saud. She used to tell them stories about ‘cat-saint’, ‘vulture-shrine’, holy spirits, snakes, and insects. In her fables, animals, birds, spirits and human beings shared a joyous space together with no conflicts and discrimination. She taught them that everything that takes breath should be treated equally. And hence the name All That Breathes. More strikingly, as the mother was diagnosed with cancer, she used to keep her fallen hair, after each chemotherapy, inside a newspaper, with respect. The boys never forgot the lesson.

Shaunak Sen’s storytelling uses a lot of dramatization and, though it hooks you up to the narrative, it also often raises ethical questions; the heated disagreements the brothers have in front of the camera is an example. To what extent one can encourage real-life characters through dramatic improvisation for the sake of powerful storytelling is an ethical concern, as it can hurt the sentiments of the real characters post-shoot. However, their young assistant Salik has an infectious smile constantly on his face, and he is a pleasure to watch, with all his innocence and vibrancy.

The film is shot when the Shaheen Bagh protests were going on against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which legally discriminated against Muslim migrants from neighboring countries, in obtaining citizenship. First, introduced in the movie as a distant sloganeering in the soundtrack and then closer attention to the speeches given by protesters, and finally to a clear and open exposure to the anti-CAA protests, the issue is hard and central. We see the worrying concerns and anxieties of Nadeem and Saud and their wives (who often participate in the protests) and eventually, the movie shows the disturbing visuals of the anti-Muslim violence that broke out in North East Delhi.

The narrative doesn’t shy away from being truthful to the totality of its protagonists’ lives. The pogrom happened two kilometers away from their house and they had to take their family to a relative’s place in Old Delhi. Saud makes a striking observation in this context, critical of Home Minister Amit Shah’s infamous remark. He says that they have always been exposed to communal violence, since childhood. But this is different and new. ‘Calling us termites and rats, it has become about hygiene’, he argues. Genocide has its language and linguistics. First, you dehumanize someone by using particular terms in language and then it’s easy to kill them. The metaphors sanction violence. They are not human, anymore. Like kites are different from other birds, some people are also different, observes Saud.

The constantly pressing woes of the locality, from water logging to unannounced power cuts are shown in the movie, though there are no vocal references. This brilliantly researched and fabulously crafted movie is a profound meditation on human-animal bonding and the politics that shape it.

Originally published in Maktoob Media: https://maktoobmedia.com/opinion/all-that-breathes-visual-poem-on-delhi-kites-and-much-more/

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