Some years ago, an uncle of mine had asked me in jest to name my favourite of the five elements. “Air,” I had responded, without thinking twice.
Pondering my reply later, I realised that it had much to do with my growing-up years in the Middle Himalayas where expressions of clarity and purity were invariably attached to the salubrious air (taazi hawaa) one breathed in on a day-to-day basis. On deeper thought still, I understood that my reply was equally related to my experiences as someone now living in Delhi-NCR, where the city’s ever-worsening environment presented air as not something to be celebrated, but to be constantly wary of – a conundrum about which I wrote in this space last year.
I was compelled to revisit these ideas and more when I recently got the opportunity to watch the Indian director Shaunak Sen’s masterly All That Breathes (2022) documentary at London’s BFI Film Festival. The first ever film to win both the Cannes and Sundance best documentary awards (in addition to a swiftly-growing list of international accolades), Sen’s work centres on the Delhi-based brothers Nadeem and Saud, who devote their lives to saving injured birds of prey (especially kites) in their cramped basement-turned-hospital.
Alongside their apprentice-assistant Salik, the brothers seek and provide succour to these flighted beings by routinely travelling across the length and breadth of the city’s edgelands, what the nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes as comprising “jittery, jumbled, broken ground.” These include “brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms [in the film, garbage mountains], scrub forests and sluggish canals.”
Significantly however, Sen’s work is not only a documentation of strong human will and heroism playing against such unrelenting spaces, nor is it a pedagogic documentation of an environment under stress whose many illustrations can be viewed across nature-television and online platforms. Instead, All That Breathes is a towering meditative and philosophical perspective on the nature of care, attention, and correspondence occurring between the human and non-human worlds. Through its vision-stretching commentary, sublime cinematography, and beguiling, sonorous silences, it even seems to stray into the realm of the spiritual but firmly remains grounded within the physicality of everyday life.
Made over a course of more than two years and running for a duration of an hour-and-a-half, the film keenly rests on several nurturing acts like rescuing, carrying, transporting, bathing, bandaging and mincing food for the pollution-infected fallen birds by the trio. We are told that before the beginning of their venture some years ago, the existing avian hospitals refused to entertain these kites as they were considered “non-vegetarian” birds. In their small basement that doubles up as a workshop for making soap-dispensers, the brothers thus start treating these creatures along with several other fauna. Meanwhile, the lives of their families and the city at large go on with their ubiquitous humdrum.
One of my (many) favourite shots occurs near the beginning, where the three rescuers find themselves on the banks of the polluted Yamuna in order to save a badly bruised kite lying on the opposite shore. As day turns to dusk and the trio debates the ways to reach the shore via swimming, an intriguing portrayal of vulnerability, liminality and the will to fight against odds emerges. The brothers and the apprentice strip naked and acclimatise themselves to the cold, contaminated waters of Delhi’s major river, using all their energy and might to pick up the bird and swim back (the victim now tugged along in a plastic basket fitted onto a tube-raft). As the celebrated anthropologist Tim Ingold writes, “organisms”, whether human or non-human, “continually disrupt any boundary between earth and sky”, and are related by the virtue of their “common immersion in the generative fluxes of the medium – in wind and weather”.
As with Sen’s first film Cities of Sleep (2015), the human protagonists here supply contemplative voiceovers every now and then, from which we learn of their desire to obtain funding to establish a proper wildlife rescue centre – an aim that gets accomplished by the end in a warm-hearted sequence. But the sense of yearning becomes a larger theme in itself as the quest to “know” the life of birds (and indeed a lot of other animals that punctuate the narrative again and again) evolves into something mystical. This isn’t only related to the spiritual fact that tossing meat to these birds of prey accrues good deeds in Islam. It is also the result of a glorious cinematography (Ben Bernhard) occasionally set to otherworldly instrumental music (Roger Goula) evoking a celestial texture that effortlessly straddles the intimate space of the basement and the limitless space of the skies in equally enchanting, even ethereal terms. Like its title, the film itself breathes a certain luminosity, in and out, both literal and affective, that is hard to capture in words.
But there were moments in which I consciously wondered what the film was trying to do whilst quietly focusing on close shots of the birds flying or healing at the brothers’ centre. And strangely, I was reminded of a passage from 2008 work The Craftsman by the sociologist-philosopher Richard Sennett. There, Sennett contemplates the handmade signatures cast into pieces of pottery by ancient Rome’s enslaved craftsmen, and argues that in that stage of perpetual bondage, such silent marks were the most crucial testimony to the slave’s oppressed identity. In Sen’s film too, where wildlife is forever enslaved to a decaying environment owing to man’s oppression, the gorgeously and quietly presented scenes of birds living their own selves attests to the simple but profound claim: we exist, despite everything.
That existence might never completely be revealed to us humans, for as Murray Shanahan has argued, the language of understanding the non-human will, at the end of the day, remain human. But great art is aware of this too, and often finds ways to ingeniously address the issue. In Sen’s work, it is the unhurried, dreamily directed gaze of the camera that constitutes one of these ways, even if it itself retains an enigmatic quality. In moments of self-reflexivity, the boundary between human and non-human gaze itself blurs, whose finest illustration takes place in the scene donning the film’s official poster, that shows Salik and an injured kite’s visions waltzing with each other.
Throughout its unfurling, the film rides on parallels and equations: the associations between the human and non-human body (the brothers themselves learn the biology of birds through their experiences as bodybuilders); avian kites and string-pulled kites; and life and death. The last gets evoked most movingly in a scene where the brothers offer prayers at the grave of their mother, and the elder sibling simultaneously keeps a keen eye on a particular owl perched nearby. It was Nadeem and Saud’s mother who taught them that there was no difference between the natural and the supernatural, for the ordinary can exude the magical when attentively regarded. Here, I was especially reminded of the plethora of nature writing and fantasy literature from the past and present, that routinely blurs the boundaries between the real and the unreal, from George MacDonald to Helen Macdonald.
Towards the film’s end, the struggle for survival gathers additional traction as the controversy around the Citizenship Amendment Act gathers steam. Catastrophe and oppression, we realise, is not an outside threat (the film actually begins with the rumours of Pakistan and India about to go on a nuclear war) but something self-generated, from within. In a moving reversal of traditional gender roles, it is the women of Nadeem and Saud’s families who partake the protests while the men tend to the birds inside.
“Their treatment is as important as the protests,” says Nadeem to his wife, who in a deeply delicate moment helps her husband with the bandaging of a kite after having returned from protesting. Touch and tenderness once again anchor and stabilise this world that Sen conjures so perceptively, and we are reminded of the philosopher Jane Bennett’s oft-argued observation that the “political” must also always encompass the non-human along with the human.
“The birds have done more for us than we have done for them”, the brothers acknowledge, adding that one cannot quite verbalise this reciprocal spirit of care and enchantment. “At most, the feeling is like music,” they believe – caring for birds touches you like music. All That Breathes teems with many such bon mots, and long after the film ends, one remembers them with warmth and wonder, just like the soaring flights and entrancing gazes of the kites. In this sense, Sen’s film also works stunningly as a literary text, subtly addressing the gap of nature writing in India on which I had dwelt in this space as well.
All That Breathes carves a special niche for itself, one that will be remembered for a very long time to come. As the film gets touted for the Oscars, one hopes that there will be more such cultural interventions that creatively and sophisticatedly blur the boundaries between nature and culture. And while the directive to “watch a film on big screen” is usually reserved for big-budget movies, I really hope that everyone gets to watch this particular work on a big screen when it is released in India (soon, according to Sen). An indisputable, essential, breathtaking masterpiece.
Siddharth Pandey is a Fellow in Global Humanities at the Kate Hamburger Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, LMU, Germany. He is the author of Fossil, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Banff Mountain Fiction and Poetry Prize.
Featured image: Kiterabbit Films/Rise Films/HHMI Tangled Bank Studios