Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Birdmen of Delhi - on the lovely documentary All That Breathes

(From my Economic Times column)

There are many ways of talking about Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes – the warm, life-affirming story of two brothers who rescue injured cheel (black kites) in north Delhi – but the moment that drew me into the film was an early shot that played like a sight-gag from a silent-movie comedy. Or even one of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films.

Two men (one of the brothers, Saud, and their gentle assistant Salik) are about to cross a water body to retrieve a bird that doesn’t have much hope of survival if they leave it where it is overnight. Nadeem, the older brother, doesn’t want to make the trip; the other two, stripping to their shorts, chatting indolently, acclimatise themselves to the cold water. Then, as they begin swimming, we see a basket on a floating tube, trailing behind them – almost like something with an independent life and personality.

The image is easy to understand, but the manner of the picturisation, the gradual build-up and small talk followed by the introduction of this container – unexpectedly bobbing into the frame from bottom right – shows a visual playfulness that will run through the film. A short while earlier we have seen a cardboard box, placed in a crowded room, move and topple over – our first indication that a cheel is inside. Though All That Breathes is about the kinship between all living things, in such moments it feels alive to the connection between everything, animate and inanimate: bird, basket, box; even Salik’s glasses, which a kite flies off with at one point.

That the documentary sustains its light, souffle-like mode (as if finding a cinematic equivalent for a cheel gliding on air, not appearing to make an effort like other birds do) is remarkable, given the subtext which might easily have been presented in pedantic terms: Nadeem, Saud and Salik are young Muslims in an increasingly majoritarian India, trying (as in the parable of the sole starfish being saved and thrown back into the sea) to put a small band-aid on a giant, incurable wound. Within the narrative, this wound refers to the ongoing destruction of our ecology and environment – the Delhi air is too polluted for beast or bird – but their community is under threat too: in the backdrop are the 2019-20 anti-CAA protests, the accompanying religious riots, and the demonisation of Indian Muslims. The words “Hawa bahut kharaab hai” (“the air is very bad”) mean more than one thing.

In between conducting rescues, the three protagonists have conversations, philosophise and wonder: about nuclear war (will radiation kill humans and birds, or will the birds survive to eat human carcasses?), about the size of a garbage hill, about how cruelty exists in nature (and humans are part of nature too). There are memorable images that are droll and moving at once: X-rays of birds hung up in a room; Salik taking a baby squirrel out of his shirt pocket shortly after speaking to his mother on the phone and hearing about violence somewhere in the city; monkeys cautiously making their way across a landscape of pipes, trying to survive in the interstices of a human-moulded world (so that those same humans can refer to them as a “menace”). There are powerful, poetic passages in the dialogue too: a reference to a mother’s hair, shed during chemotherapy, buried with a feather from a rescued cheel; a character mulling that if he has a heart attack, his chest will burst open and kites will fly out. The brothers’ attentiveness to their little wards is palpable: a particular cheel must be released as soon as possible, one of them says, because by examining it closely he has figured that there are probably babies in its nest. (An obvious analogy can be made with the wrongly imprisoned Muslim man who has a dependent family, but this isn’t underlined.)

I imagine viewers of a strong political bent would approve of this film because it isn’t “just” a personal story about bird-rescuers, it also deals with religious persecution and a country divided. But how do you define or frame “the larger picture”? Some of us could invert the argument and say that the biggest thing facing us, collectively, is the dying of the planet, and the many ways in which we as a big-brained, self-centred species (that includes Hindus and Muslims, men and women, and every other human category) have contributed to this damage – as well as the efforts that some people are making to suture it. “However much time you spend with an animal, caring for it, you can’t understand it,” goes one line (this applies to human relationships too, especially our interactions with those whom we have othered). But the words aren’t said with despair or hopelessness, they are said with a sense of wonder – a sense of wonder, and a willingness to look closely, that allows the circle of empathy to keep expanding. It is the same tone in which the brothers mention looking up at the birds as children and feeling dizzy and light at the same time: Lagta tha aasmaan mein gir jaayenge. "It felt like we would fall into the sky."

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