Director: Shaunak Sen
Cast: Salik Rehman, Mohammad Saud, Nadeem Shehzad
Cinematographers: Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, Saumyananda Sahi
Editors: Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Vedant Joshi
One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes. Before dying of cancer, a lower-middle-class Muslim mother in East Delhi imparts this critical lesson to her sons. Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud become living embodiments of her dictum. The sometimes-warring, sometimes-affectionate brothers, who work with soap for a living, become saviours of kites.
These majestic birds of prey are dropping from the sky because the air quality and visibility in the city is so foul. Nadeem and Mohammad pick up these birds – sometimes as many as 28 in a day – and tend to them. They bathe, bandage, operate on, feed and rehabilitate kites in a dingy, claustrophobic basement and rooftop. It’s a tough, relentless job – in one scene, they are grinding meat with a broken-down machine in the blistering heat to feed their many wards. Cash reserves are low. And the basement is so cramped that one of the brothers feels that someday he might have a heart attack in it. And yet they persist. Because, as they put it, life itself is a kinship.
All That Breathes begins with a stunning three-minute slow pan across a derelict, empty lot. We see mounds of garbage. And slowly, living beings emerge. Rats scurry across the frame as traffic passes in the background. Through the documentary, director Shaunak Sen returns to this idea of the precarious balance between nature and human beings and the impossible ways in which overpopulation and pollution force both to adapt. Later we see mosquitoes, dogs, cows, monkeys, pigs, horses, lizards, a frog, a caterpillar and even a turtle somehow surviving the urban jungle. Meanwhile, the birds, who glide over the bustling, bursting capital city, as though they are swimming, keep falling down. And Nadeem and Mohammad keep trying to save them. Early in the film, one of them explains: It is said that feeding kites earns sawab, which means religious credit or reward, because when they eat the meat you offer, they eat away your difficulties.
But there aren’t enough birds in the sky to eat away the difficulties of being a Muslim in contemporary India. Nadeem and Mohammad’s story plays out against the backdrop of the CAA protests and riots in North-East Delhi, a few kilometres from their home. In a heartbreaking scene, Salik, their new helper, is sitting in an autorickshaw with rescued birds and a baby squirrel in his pocket when he gets a frantic call asking if he is fine. In a city that is self-destructing with religious hate and toxic politics, he is insistent on looking after its voiceless, most vulnerable residents.
All That Breathes isn’t shrill about its concerns. Shaunak weaves the many threads together with meditative rhythms, restraint and deep compassion. DOPs Benjamin Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi create images of startling beauty – like one of a centipede crawling through a filthy puddle, which reflects a plane flying overhead. We are continually reminded that we must find ways to co-exist. The 93-minute documentary is also enhanced by Roger Goula’s haunting score, which is sparingly used and fills the frames with an abiding sadness.
Because despite these few good men, there is an overwhelming tragedy playing out. At the end of the film, I was moist-eyed. I cried for the incredible grace of these brothers and for the myopic cruelty of the world they live in. And for ourselves, because each one of us has contributed to making it. All that Breathes ends with Nadeem looking into the camera and asking: Sun pa raha hai mujhe?
We must listen before it’s too late.