Academy Awards: ‘All that breathes’ puts today's India on stage

Nominated in the Best Documentary Short Film category, director Shaunak Sen's work is much more than a look at New Delhi's environmental problems. The film tells the story of two Muslim brothers who, in a basement garage, treat sick black kites, birds of prey who can live alongside humans. For Nadeem and Saud, it is government discrimination and propaganda that are toxic.

Milan (AsiaNews) – This year, three Indian films are taking centre stage at the Academy Awards in three distinct categories.

"Naatu naatu”[*], which is in the running for best original song, is part of the soundtrack of the box office success “RRR" (its director, S.S. Rajampuli, hoped to see his work nominated for best film after James Cameron gave his thumbs up).

The other two are competing for best documentaries: “The elephant whisperers" by Kartiki Gonsalves in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, and “All that breathes" by Shaunak Sen (best director at the 2022 IDA[†] Documentary Awards) for Best Documentary Feature.

“Chhello Show" by Pan Nalin – a quasi-autobiographical love story by a Gujarati boy for filmmaking) – did not make it through the selection process for best foreign language film.

The two documentaries focus on wildlife conservation, the only ones in their respective categories to cover this topic; however, “All that breathes” is also full of references to  a number of political and social issues that bedevil India today.

Several critics have called it “riveting, moving and even subliminally funny", winning the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and a Golden Eye (Oeil d'or) at Cannes last year.

Director Shaunak Sen did not, however, expect to see his work nominated among the films that deal with environmental issues.

Shot over three years, the film tells the story of two Muslim brothers, Nadeem and Saud, who decide to dedicate their lives to the protection of the black kite after a local veterinary clinic refused to take care of a bird that had fallen from the sky because it was a “not-vegetarian bird".

This bird of prey plays a key role in maintaining the ecosystem of the Indian capital, New Delhi, one of the most populous and polluted cities in the world.

The two brothers founded an NGO, Wildlife Rescue, in 2010, where about 2,500 sick, injured or orphaned birds are treated on average every year. Whatever the reason birds are taken to their underground clinic, the two brothers want to ensure that they can return to live in the wild.

In a nightmarish scenario, the kites, who live in an environment that is profoundly contaminated by humans, continue to fall from the sky as a result of the smog, forced to feed on mountains of waste tens of metres high, using cigarette butts as a parasite repellent.

“When you live in Delhi, the air takes on this physical character – it’s this heavy, tactile, palpable, almost living, creepy, sentient thing,” Sen explains.

“I was fascinated by this texture of greyness that coats all our lives and that we are breathing in,” Sen added.

“You look up, it’s this monochromatic sky with these black dots which are floating about. That’s the dystopian picture postcard of Delhi. I was fascinated by what one could do with this mood or tone of life.”

But this film does not only document urban pollution. In “All that breathes”, birds of prey are not the only New Delhi dwellers at risk; as Muslims, Nadeem and Saud, who sell soap dispensers to support themselves, are also threatened by anti-Muslim violence with riots coming ever closer to their poor neighbourhood of Wazirabad.

In another scene, the two celebrate because the government renewed their NGO's licence to receive funding from abroad, an issue that came up several times last year, especially in relation to non-Hindu charities.

Salik, Nadeem and Saud's assistant, wonders what will happen to the birds in the event of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. “Where did you hear that?" asks one of the brothers.

“I read it on social media," Salik replies, bringing to the screen the issue of disinformation and government propaganda against India’s neighbour.

“You don't care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics," the brothers say at one point. “Life itself is kinship. That's why we can't abandon the birds," they add, showing a form kinship that touches more than one species, and runs deeper than simply caring for the environment and fighting the climate crisis.

The brothers describe Delhi as an “open wound”, conscious that what they do is just providing a band-aid solution.

But then the brothers also realise that it is not so much they who save the birds, but the birds of prey who have saved them, giving meaning to their lives, offering them a mission and a small dose of hope.

[*] Naatu means native, local, or ethnic in Telugu.

[†] International Documentary Association.