In a scene that forms a connecting tissue between various themes in the documentary All That Breathes, two brothers stand praying beside their mother’s grave in Delhi. Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud have spent over two decades treating injured and unwell birds – specifically, kites – in the city. As they leave the cemetery, they reminisce about their Ammi’s religious fables and tales of djinns, which gave them their earliest understanding of science and animals. She spoke of spirits that appear in the form of serpents and insects, one of them recalls. “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes,” he says. “Trees, fungus, or vegetation, natural and supernatural worlds were mixed for her.”
The interconnectedness of living beings is the thread running through the Indian director Shaunak Sen’s documentary feature, nominated for an Oscar at the Academy Awards in Hollywood this weekend. The film focuses as much on human beings as on birds, though the way it has been framed leaves it wide open to interpretation.
Kites are not an endangered species. We learn from the documentary that the siblings’ interest in caring for them in particular began when a bird they took to an animal hospital as teenagers was turned away “because the kite is non-vegetarian”. According to earlier news reports about Nadeem and Saud’s work, the hospital was run by the Jain community, whose commitment to ahimsa, or non-violence, extends to a strict adherence to vegetarianism. The establishment did not treat carnivores, since feeding meat to patients was not allowed. For those unfamiliar with India, the matter might end there, even if the idea of leaving creatures to die in the name of non-violence is bewildering. But for those aware that the country’s marginalised communities, particularly Dalits and Muslims, are vilified for their meat-inclusive diets, this incident is far from innocuous. Hindu majoritarian militants have tried to justify multiple lynchings in recent years by alleging that the victims, invariably from marginalised groups, were stocking beef or somehow involved in the butchering of cows, considered sacred in Hinduism. The docu-feature does not spell out this bigger picture, instead leaving it to viewers to join the dots.
All That Breathes does not register Nadeem and Saud’s reaction to the rejection at the hospital, but a 2020 New York Times profile noted that they were confused by what they saw as, in Nadeem’s words, “discrimination between a vegetarian and a nonvegetarian”. The article quotes him saying: “It hit us somewhere inside, because we were nonvegetarian ourselves.”
Said and unsaid
As a cinematic experience, All That Breathes is poetic and emotionally stirring. Topically, it is hard to identify the exact moment at which it transforms from a chronicle of Nadeem and Saud’s mission to save kites into a document of the tenuous position of Muslims in contemporary India, juxtaposed with existential questions about the interdependence of species. All That Breathes’ ecological and political concerns are woven so seamlessly into the brothers’ personal story as to make the film thematically indefinable.
It is hard to identify the exact moment at which it transforms from a chronicle of Nadeem and Saud’s mission to save kites into a document of the tenuous position of Muslims in contemporary India.
As Nadeem and Saud’s worries for raptors grew, All That Breathes tells us, they trained themselves in avian anatomy and set up a bird rehabilitation centre in their home, while earning their income from a business manufacturing soap dispensers. According to their website, they registered their non-profit, Wildlife Rescue, in 2010. These are not wealthy men. They live with pathetic infrastructure in a congested residential area covered in muck. Keeping their centre afloat has been a struggle, although media coverage in the last few years has vastly improved the situation. Since they got government clearance for foreign donations, they have set up a bird hospital. They persist against all odds, fuelled by an innate connection with nature rooted in the Islamic belief that feeding birds of prey is a blessed deed, and also by a realisation that the kites’ vulnerability is a symptom of something far more lethal. As Saud says philosophically after a heated exchange with his brother: “Our fights … Don’t think they’re because of petty financial reasons, or that it’s an ego thing, or an emotional issue. The real reason’s up here. What’s happening with the birds, the air, the sky. Our fights are just a symptom of something much larger.”
Speeches, sloganeering and TV reports about the Indian Constitution and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) form the background track to the brothers’ lives from the start, later to be taken over by the anti-Muslim Delhi riots of 2020. Meanwhile, in the foreground, they discuss their anxiety for the future with their family and their young associate, Salik Rehman. India witnessed nationwide protests in 2019-20 against the CAA, which facilitates the granting of Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis. Activists in India and abroad have criticised the law for making religion a basis for granting citizenship and for excluding Muslims from its ambit. They warn that, along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), it can also be used to render many Indian Muslim citizens stateless, since it is extremely hard to meet the stringent requirements for proof of identity and nationality under the NRC.
With the 2020 riots raging not far from their home, one brother says in All That Breathes: “Religious riots aren’t a new thing … But what’s happening now is different. Because this time, it’s not just hatred. There’s widespread disgust about some people. By calling people termites and rats, they’ve somehow made it about hygiene. Just like the kite is different, people are also treated differently.” This is a reference to a 2018 speech by Amit Shah, India’s current home minister and long-time lieutenant to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he equated illegal immigrants with vermin. It is pertinent to note that anti-minority rhetoric in India has long painted all illegal immigrants as Bangladeshi Muslims, conflated Indian Muslims with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and portrayed Indian Muslims as being more loyal to Pakistan than India. So when Amit Shah describes illegal immigrants as termites, the danger is as much to Indian Muslims as to poor foreigners entering the country illegally.
“A community of air”
The blending of nature documentary with human drama and non-didactic political thesis, accompanied by almost spiritual music from the composer Roger Goula, is done to perfection in All That Breathes. The effectiveness of this synthesis renders even more inexplicable the filmmaker’s decision to exclude information about why Delhi’s kites are collapsing so routinely. The documentary implies that pollution is to blame. However, Nadeem and Saud’s other interviews over the years point to a more mundane instrument of death: string coated with powdered glass and used to fly paper kites in friendly competitions, to cut the strings of other kites in the sky, sending them adrift. Such string, or manjha, is also potentially lethal for birds, and even human beings, when it cuts the throats of those who accidentally cross its path. Efforts to ban it in India over the years have proved futile.
It is possible that the brothers were preoccupied with the turbulent real-world developments unfolding in the time that they were being filmed for All That Breathes (for three years from January 2019 onwards, according to NPR), but it seems unlikely that they would have skipped mentioning perilous kite-flying practices to the filmmaker. They have said in interviews before and after the release of the documentary, and on their website, that glass-coated string is the number-one cause of the bird injuries they treat (90 percent of them, as per the New York Times profile). If sidestepping manjha was an editorial choice, it is befuddling, since it serves no ostensible purpose for All That Breathes. On the contrary, it could be argued that the irresponsible use of such string is a greater sign of human callousness than a damaged environment, since the consequences of the string are immediate and, therefore, more immediately visible to the culprits who use it.
With the 2020 riots raging not far from their home, one brother says in All That Breathes: “Religious riots aren’t a new thing … But what’s happening now is different. Because this time, it’s not just hatred.
The haze over this information forms a contrast to the breathtaking detail in the filming of the ecosystem within which Nadeem and Saud operate. The results are a testament to the superhuman patience, persistence and planning of the director, as well as the cinematographers Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi. The nearly three-minute-long opening shot of rats in the dark foraging through garbage for food is mesmerising not only for what it holds but also because it took a special mind to envision the potential impact of such a visual passage. A lingering aerial view of cows walking through a waterlogged street, goats reflected in water, pigs, a turtle, a camel, insects, dogs, birds, monkeys, horses in thick foliage, all lend a meditative air to the narrative. These images also underline the diversity of flora and fauna in lesser-developed quarters of India’s enormous capital city, and its co-mingling with humans and human-generated filth.
Charlotte Munch Bengtsen’s editing gives All That Breathes a gliding quality resembling the flying technique of the film’s avian protagonists. Cutting through the toxins in the air and in speeches, in society and in the polity, All That Breathes is ultimately about this understanding articulated by one of the brothers: “You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship. Hum sab hawa ke biradari hai (We’re all a community of air). That’s why we can’t abandon the birds.”
All That Breathes premiered in January 2022 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. It has since been screened at prominent festivals and won several major awards, including the Golden Eye Award at the Festival de Cannes 2022. After a theatrical release in the United States, it became available on HBO and HBO Max. The film has received glowing reviews from Indian critics. Yet, for all of this, it has not yet been released in theatres or on streaming services in its home country.
All That Breathes is ultimately about this understanding articulated by one of the brothers: “You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship.
Indian documentary-making is currently in the middle of a global renaissance. The Golden Eye Award scooped up by All That Breathes at Cannes 2022 was won in 2021 by another Indian film, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing. This was a chronicle of dissent against accelerating caste and religious discrimination in India under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Between them, from 2021 to 2023, All That Breathes, A Night of Knowing Nothing, Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched, Rebana Liz John’s Ladies Only, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire and Sarvnik Kaur’s Against The Tide have earned awards at Cannes, Sundance, Berlinale, Busan and Toronto, among other prestigious festivals. Writing With Fire, profiling a newspaper run entirely by Dalit women in rural north India, received an Oscar nomination in 2022 for Best Documentary Feature after sweeping awards across the world. And Kartiki Gonsalves’ conservation flick Elephant Whisperers is also up for an Oscar this weekend, in the Documentary Short category.
What most of these films have in common is that they engage with social and political issues that have either always been ignored by India’s mainstream news media, or are being ignored now for fear of the present repressive regime. All That Breathes falls into the latter category in the most unexpected way imaginable. The film and its message deserve massive attention at home, and a fillip from the Oscars might just be what’s needed for it. But then again, in today’s India with its many uncomfortable silences, even that may not be enough.