Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” and a Front Row Seat for the Apocalypse
‘All That Breathes’, Shaunak Sen’s documentary premiering at Sundance, is an urgent commentary on Delhi’s social fabric and its apocalyptic skies
At the start of Shaunak Sen’s documentary, anything that breathes – while carefully examining and suturing a wounded bird in front of them – two brothers discuss the potential ramifications of nuclear war based on a news report one of them has come across. If it weren’t for the bird on the table, you would have guessed it was just another Delhi basement: filled with boxes, chipped walls and soot-covered light bulbs lighting just enough.
If you ask the 34-year-old director — beyond the occasional references to said nuclear obliteration — Delhi is already in the throes of an apocalypse and the brothers have a front row seat to it. And he captured that in anything that breathes, the only Indian documentary to have its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, USA (to be held virtually from January 20).
“Essentially, the film is about the relationship of the people of Delhi with the polluted sky, through the lenses of these black spots [the silent casualty of the city’s darkening skies, the black kite] that we often see slipping through it,” he says. Through the story of the two brothers, Nadeem Shahzad (44 years old) and Mohammad Saud (40 years old), Sen wanted to grasp the fact that “nature does not happen elsewhere but in the heart of our urban jungles”.
Blackheads, dark lives
The brothers’ story appealed to Sen because they selflessly dealt with black kites from their basement while running a soap dispenser business next door. (Sen was actively looking for people working with birds and contacted the duo after discovering their story in various news reports.) Through their bird rehabilitation organization, Wildlife Rescue, the brothers treat more than 2,000 raptors a year.
Shahzad and Saud are not qualified vets. Sen explains that they both developed a “hypnotic fascination” with black kites while growing up in Old Delhi. “According to Islam, throwing meat at kites is virtuous. This 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 on the pretext that he [the bird of prey] was not a vegetarian. The brothers had then operated the said kite themselves. It helped that they were into bodybuilding – leaning on dozens of flex magazine issues helped them understand the world of injuries, tears and fractures.
But as the documentary progresses, the birds from owls to hawks falling from the sky due to the dual effect of pollution and deadly kite enthusiasts only increase. Even the black kites – migrating raptors that visit Delhi from Russia during the winter months – are injured and can never turn back. “Injured birds keep coming to them in cartons carried in auto rickshaws, their personal relationship has its ups and downs and Delhi’s social violence is also seeping into their neighborhood. Yet they carry on with meaning. ironic humor.
In the documentary, as environmental toxicity and social unrest in Delhi escalate, the relationship between this Muslim family and the neglected kite forms a poetic chronicle of the city’s ecology collapse and rising social tensions.
Urban jungle malaise
The team followed the brothers for three years to gain insight into their lives and, through this, the wider history of Delhi itself. “If you look at anything long enough, things are revealed to you,” Sen says. “For me, it was important to situate the good work of the brothers in a larger context. The best books or movies that I personally like approach everything through the particular.
The documentary is peppered with languorous shots of rats scurrying for food in the heart of the bustling city; pigs framing the edges of an elite canton; and even a turtle riding on garbage bags, contemplating the endless traffic on the road. Sen and his team spent most of the filming schedule patiently and painstakingly making these shots, as they formed the core 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 lizards’ finger spans have increased because they now have to navigate concrete houses. So we’ve used the brothers’ story as a springboard to show how the city’s social and ecological malaise has truly taken over the world of everything that breathes.
Sen insists the documentary is not a social justice film, at least not explicitly, nor is it a nature documentary because “nobody on the crew just has those skills. “. However, it relies on the cold facts unfolding before us. Or as he puts it: “We tried to make the scientist poetic.
To be the only Indian documentary to premiere at Sundance is an honor Sen certainly does not take for granted. And he credits the film’s universal appeal to its themes. “The brothers provided me with an emotional crutch and then there are fewer things in life more universal than the human-animal relationship.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs January 20-30 on sundance.org.