Delhi’s architecture is such that you can turn a blind eye to the squalor without much effort. The city has grown to cater to the elites while the deprived are pushed into the ghettos. “All That Breathes” compels the audience to look closely at the waste, the reject, and the cause of our deep-seated disgust. With a long take of mice squeaking as they forage for food in the landfill, Shaunak Sen sets the tone of his documentary film. It is evident that the camera will stay put on those denied visibility and voice from the very first minute of the film. “All That Breathes” is as much about the concerning condition of our environment at present as it is a commentary on the hatred, rejection, and disgust that human beings have developed for one another. Sen brings moments of laughter, despair, hope, and uneasiness, making “All That Breathes” an emotional affair.
Brotherhood: Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad
As the condition of Delhi’s air quality worsens, more and more kites are brought into Saud and Nadeem’s little garage hospital for treatment. While one-half of the garage is dedicated to the automobile repair business, the other half is devoted to the brothers’ passion project—saving birds, particularly kites. The brothers realized the need for a dedicated hospital for kites once they were returned from a hospital after they brought in an injured kite. Since kites are non-vegetarian birds, the hospital denied their treatment. Knowing how important kites are for environmental balance, the brothers studied to treat those considered “dirty.”
Nadeem compared the devotional bliss that Saud experienced while rescuing birds with the pleasure that one achieves through the practice of classical music. He supported his brother for 20 years, but in the process of rescuing lives and dedicating himself to a greater problem, he realized that he had missed out on life. His aspirations were left unfulfilled by the burden of running the hospital. He wanted to travel abroad and experience life, but he was unsure about its viability. With the ever-increasing number of injured kites and their collapsing work setup, a sense of hopelessness started to consume them. They could not help but feel bitter about what the world was coming down to. The air quality was concerning, the environment was deteriorating, and people on the streets were fighting for their rightful existence. Amidst all the turmoil, they were fighting for a cause that should have concerned all, but barely anyone showed interest. From childhood, their mother had told them stories about the natural and the supernatural, which fascinated them. She inspired them to care for all that breathes without thinking less of any being, and their mother continued to be their greatest source of motivation.
Relief set in when they received foreign funding. Salik could not hide his excitement as he dreamed about setting up a conveyer belt in the new hospital, along with a Mercedes ambulance and an animated logo. After receiving the grant and planning the expansion of their hospital, Nadeem decided to disclose his future plans to his brother. He announced that he would be moving abroad to learn more about wildlife rescue. Saud was deeply affected by the sudden possibility of his brother leaving him. While his heart ached, he did not have anything to say to him. The two brothers spent what seemed like forever without exchanging any words. Nadeem wanted his brother to believe that he would return with better skills that would help in running the hospital, but he was aware that while Saud did not doubt the logic behind his decision, his silence was driven by emotion. “All That Breathes” has moments where the subjects choose silence over explicitly expressing their emotions, moving the audience as they watch their journey unfold.
Saving Kites Amidst the Growing Unrest in the City
The news of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act played on television as the brothers and their families gathered for dinner. The Act made it obvious that people from the Muslim community would not be entertained for refugee status in India. As the family watched the news, Nadeem expressed his concern over his father’s citizenship document, which contained a spelling error. They wondered if they would be thrown out of the country because of a spelling error and where they might have to settle if that ever occurred. While they laughed at the possibilities, they were deeply concerned about the uncertainty.
While Saud wanted to join his wife in the protests, he had to devote all of his time to kite rescue. He was aware of how the situation was worsening, but he could not abandon his work and risk the possibility of losing lives. The number of kites brought into the hospital kept on increasing, and even though he tried his best, saving all the injured was not possible. Amidst all the protest cries, the fridge that they used at the hospital stopped working. The chaos outside was reflected within the hospital space as they tried to figure out a way around the broken refrigerator. Saud struggled to keep his temper in check, knowing that his community was being brutally attacked on the streets.
As Indian Muslims, the brothers had grown up watching riots, but what set the recent clashes apart was the fact that they were driven by disgust and hatred. The minorities are compared to animals living in the dirt, it is not a recent phenomenon, but in recent times, it has been more commonly used without guilt. The idea is to reduce humans to animals that are exterminated on a large scale. Therefore, the more people buy into the idea that a particular section of society is “dirty” and “unpleasant,” the easier it becomes to target them without much protest. During the Delhi riot, Saud shifted his family to his old house while he stayed awake at night, fearing another attack.
Even amidst the turmoil, the brothers managed to build the hospital of their dreams. Nadeem was determined to travel abroad, and they discussed how they would manage running the hospital in his absence. They proudly watched the “Wildlife Rescue” board being put up; their dreams were finally becoming a reality. But eventually, they wondered how people would reach out to them as the street continued to be uneven and dangerous. Through their persistent efforts, they managed to build the hospital they always wanted, but the world around them had not changed; rather, it got worse with time. Their dream of saving the environment will remain unfulfilled until the world around them changes.
“All That Breathes” adjusts its focus on those who are not taken into account, be it the snail slowly passing by as the riots in the streets of Delhi began or the mighty kites flying amidst the smoke emitted by a nearby factory. Human beings are truly the loneliest species, and our self-centeredness has allowed us to turn a blind eye to the harm that we have single-handedly caused to the world. Kites are constantly adjusting to the evolving natural conditions; they now use cigarette buds as parasite repellent, and while this is what evolution is all about, it surely is not natural. Sen did not get carried away with the political unrest that unfolded in the country at the time; he found the right balance between the backdrop and his subjects. The awe-inspiring narration, along with the impressive cinematography and the treatment of the subject, reflects the years of understanding that went into the making of the documentary.