‘The Constitution has to be saved’, a disjointed voice jumbles out of an invisible loudspeaker as Salik Rehman steps out of a door on to the streets of Wazirabad in East Delhi.
Salik goes about his work, seemingly not bothered by the inquilabi (revolutionary) pronouncements. There are bigger things to do.
Like saving black kites.
Down in the basement, side by side of manufacturing liquid soap dispensers, brothers Muhammed Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, along with Salik, care for the birds affected by Delhi’s pollution or injured by the manjha, cotton thread covered with crushed glass used in kite flying battles.
Shaunak Sen’s award-winning documentary All That Breathes follows Saud, Nadeem and Salik while they rescue, save and nurture the black kites of Delhi. As Nadeem describes, Delhi’s atmosphere has changed and so have the creatures that live there. The cheel, or the beautiful, majestic kite, is a bird of habit, and every kite has its own code. But nature now demands that we, all living creatures, all who breathe, break that code to adjust to the environment.
As I stare at the computer screen attempting to express my emotions in a rational, review like manner, India is in the throes of a genocide that can only get worse. If ever there was an Indian film that captures the beginnings of that genocide, bearing witness to the early days of the Shaheen Bagh sit-in* and the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in North-East Delhi soon after, then this is it.
The stupefaction of a vast populace while people around them are lynched and dehumanised, while the decay spreads, unable to recognise that when the environment changes, everyone is affected and it is up to us, all who breathe, to look after each other.
Because we all need each other to exist. And we learn it from these three men.
That is the simplest takeaway from this deeply philosophical film that unfolds like a painting from Indian impressionist Vasudeo Gaitonde. The light is low, the smog suffuses everything, creatures big and tiny make their way around in nooks and crannies, a turtle on an open rubbish dump, mosquito larvae swimming in dirty water, an owl staring from a crack in a wall and the mighty kite, many mighty kites gliding across the sky.
Into intimate spaces and across the Wazirabad landscape, brothers reminiscing about their mother, bantering, sometimes disagreeing, Nadeem teasing Salik about a Mercedes ambulance for birds when they receive funding and mourning dead birds are just some of the images that descend into your brain.
‘All That Breathes’ makes you re-think what you know about compassion, climate justice, political resistance, family, tradition, and country. More precisely, what is India and who are Indians?
In times when embassies and high commissions spread misinformation about films, attempting to change history with their belligerence, it becomes imperative to see and hear the voices of the oppressed.
The fear of the Indian Muslim today is legitimate. Nadeem, Saud and Salik are no different but their faith in their work and their connection to the cheel are greater than the forces of Hindu nationalism because what they manifest is pure love.
(‘All That Breathes’ had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in January 2022, where it won Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary Competition. It also won the Golden Eye award for the best documentary at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in special screening section.)