Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes: A deeply evocative story of the changing urban ecology

It recently won the prestigious L’Œil d’or award at the Cannes Film Festival

By Namrata Joshi

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 4:09 PM

There’s a mellow moment in Shaunak Sen’s documentary, All That Breathes, when it dwells on a belief that its protagonists — brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad — hold dear. That feeding kites can expel troubles for human beings: “It’s said that feeding kites earns sawab (religious credit). When they eat the meat, they eat away your difficulties.” It’s such instances of simple, innate but deeply poetic wisdom of the real-life siblings, grounded in their instinctive humaneness, compassion and benevolence, that run like a delicate thread through All That Breathes and make it exceptionally uplifting.

On the surface the 90-minute film might appear to be dealing with our plain, banal reality — the notions of development, progress and urbanisation, their terrible repercussions on the cityscape, its climate and environment. But it locates these issues in the lives of sensitive souls, gives ideas a human face by focusing on the brothers’ lifelong passion for rescuing and tending injured kites, the unique bond they have with the birds of prey who are getting smothered by the pollution in much the same way as the humans, and the ties that bind Saud and Shehzad to each other and to their assistant in the mission, Salik Rehman.

The film recently won the L’Œil d’or award at the Cannes Film Festival. An independent prize that recognises the best non-fiction film in the festival across all sections, this is the second year in succession that it has gone to an Indian documentary. Last year, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing took the trophy home. The jury citation honours All That Breathes for reminding us that “every life matters, and every small action matters. You can grab your camera, you can save a bird, you can hunt for some moments of stealing beauty, it matters. It’s an inspirational journey in observation of three Don Quixotes who may not save the whole world but do save their world.”

Earlier this year All That Breathes had its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary Competition. In the middle of its festival run, it had been acquired by HBO Documentary Films for TV distribution just few days before its Cannes premiere. The huge outpouring of love for it is also being perceived as a possible deal-breaker at the Oscars next year.

The philanthropy of the three men — who accompanied Sen for the premiere in Cannes — has been well documented in various news articles. Sen, however, didn’t start on the “dystopic fairytale”, as he refers to his much-acclaimed film, with them or their work in mind. “Even before I had a sense of how the brothers would be the primary vectors for the story, I had a vague intuition or a sense of the visual texture or feeling of the film,” he says.

For the young filmmaker, the visual has always mattered more than the story or idea of a film. In this instance, he wanted to evoke the “all-round hazy texture of greyness of Delhi” — the diffused sun, the bad air and the figures of kites gliding in the sky.

Fortuitously his subjects, the two brothers, had a profound relationship with the skies and the kites. “There’s this romanticised, bleeding-heart sentimentality about environmentalism,” says Sen, which he found refreshingly absent in them. “They have a kind of unsentimental sense of soldiering on through the day, witnessing ecological devastation every day at a scale that really is unimaginable.”

It took a while to gain the confidence . of the soft-spoken, quiet duo. Eventually he got hours and hours of footage from the two-and-a-half years of shooting with them. He kept sharpening it to focus on the deeper comments and observations they had made while making the film.

When Sen met them in their basement initially, he found something cinematic about the space as well — machines on the one hand and the majestic-yet-vulnerable kites on the other.

The subject of ecology and science aside, Sen had a poetic, contemplative style planned to invoke the inner life of mind and heart with the brothers forming the film’s emotional core. The film, with its meditative frames, inventive soundscape and a lyrical narration, offers a philosophical treatise on the interconnectedness of life forms. The phrase ‘hawa ki biradari’, used by the brothers, underscores that every life form is important because we all are breathing the same air.

The visual flair and profundity in the film may well stem from the fact that Sen is also a video artist and a scholar of cinema. In 2014, he co-curated the live-event installation Downtime, held simultaneously at the Goethe Institute, (Delhi) and Neukölln (Berlin). In 2015, he co-curated the live performance/video installation event Notes on Mourning (Khoj Studios), and attended the Copycat Academy Residency, curated by Hannah Hurtzig at the Luminatos Film Festival (Toronto).

The Delhi-based filmmaker appears to have a penchant for dealing with subjects that have to do with the city’s underbelly. His first feature-length documentary Cities of Sleep (2016), about the search for sleeping spots in Delhi, was shown at various international film festivals, including Dok Leipzig, MAMI — Mumbai International Film Festival, Taiwan International Film Festival, the Seattle South Asian Film Festival, New York Indian Film Festival.

However, in both his films, the Delhi we get to see is the one on the margins of our consciousness. Not the stuff of popular imagination and imagery of Delhi. While Cities of Sleep looks at Delhi horizontally through the lens of sleep, All That Breathes has the vertical dimension of the kites and the sky.

While Delhi in Sen’s film breathes the polluted air, there’s also the toxic, divisive politics that forms the backdrop for the philanthropy of Saud, Shehzad and Rehman. “However, this was not a project geared to be a political snapshot of the country,” explains Sen. The question was whether to point the camera away or stick to things happening in their world. So, there is the sense of outer world leaking in, a sense of churn driven by the anti-CAA/NRC protests entering their living room, primarily through TV news but it is not a frontal encounter with it. “The brothers themselves are not directly political in a ‘get out there’ way,” says Sen, “They are more interested in cosmological politics, between man and the sky… For them political is all about the expression of ecological concerns.”

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