Do look up: Shaunak Sen on capturing Delhi’s dystopia in Sundance winner ‘All That Breathes’
MUMBAI: Filmmaker Shaunak Sen says his documentary “All That Breathes”, which recently won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, began as an idea to capture the ecological doom that envelopes India’s capital through the eyes of its two modest protagonists.
The 90-minute documentary follows two siblings, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who have devoted their lives to rescue and treat injured birds, especially the Black Kites.
Working out of their derelict basement in Wazirabad, the Delhi brothers become the central focus of the film and their story zooms out to document a larger snapshot of the city, where the air is toxic and the ground is on a slowburn of social turmoil.
In a telephonic interview with PTI from New York, Sen said his idea was to simply “disassemble Delhi”.
“I knew in the vaguest and most abstract sense that we wanted to do something around the visual texture of our lives in Delhi- the grey, monotoned, hazy lamina that laminates the city.
“Every time you look up, you see these tiny dots peppering the sky, gliding lazily across, which are the black Kites,” he said.
Sen, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia University and JNU, also had the awareness that people in Delhi breathe “noxious air” and the environment enveloping its citizens has slowly become hostile to their welfare.
“There was this strong sense that the very engines of the world were going awry. We were also deeply interested in thinking of non-human life in the city and how climate change affects them as well. I wanted to make something that the audience would watch and then look up at the sky.
“We started looking for people who shared a profound relationship with the sky and the birds in particular. That’s when we chanced upon the work of the brothers and got to know how they treated Kites.”
The brothers, who claim to treat 8-10 birds a day, started their journey two decades ago, and eventually set up their non-profit organisation, Wildlife Rescue, treating birds with clipped wings and wounds.
With a shooting unit comprising four members each in the direction and camera team, Sen filmed the brothers “relentlessly” for over two years, documenting their “infrastructural hassle, emotional tussle, and private challenges”.
By the end of the shoot, Sen had roughly 150 hours of footage and an intimate portrait of their lives and the city.
The 34-year-old director grew up in Delhi’s defence colony and now resides in Chittaranjan Park.
“All That Breathes” is his second directorial after the acclaimed 2016 “Cities of Sleep”, which was about the homeless scouting for places to sleep in the capital.
“My directorial team and I have been embedded in the city. We are deeply engaged and in love but also equally disquieted by the city.
“It is chaotic, there is a dizzyingly delirious, frenzied rush of the city that can be aggressive, in turns tender, in turns unkind, in turns myriad. In my previous film, I looked at Delhi through the lens of sleep.
“In this film, the idea was to disassemble Delhi through the lens of birdlife, the sky. And when you talk about the sky, you talk about the smoke and the ground where it is coming from. Hopefully, it gives a sideways optic or prism through which one attends to the city.”
For Sen, the story of Saud and Shehzad, right down to their house, was “cinematically riveting”.
Two brothers working in a tiny basement, surrounded by heavy metal cutting machines and industrial decay, tending to “vulnerable birds”, he said.
“The salient bipolarity of the place was truly cinematic. We just kept shooting for two and a half years and slowly a form emerged where we could talk about both these characters and alongside them- the broader snapshots of the city itself.”
Their process of treating Kites, aided by donations and by their employee Salik, gave Sen the proverbial David vs Goliath arc.
These men are “soldiering on indefatigably”, in the direst of conditions, against all odds, the filmmaker added.
“Essentially, they are fighting against a problem that is enormous, which is in an almost apocalyptic way, birds falling out of the sky. Delhi does not get any more clichedly dystopic than that. It is literally those two or three people, in a tiny basement, dealing with that problem.
“There is something inherently cruel and unbelievable about the situation and what they do is heroic. The idea was to follow the spine of what was happening with their everyday lives.”
In her citation for Sundance, filmmaker juror Emilie Bujes had described “All That Breathes” as a “poetic film” which delivers an “urgent political story”.
Many critics have also lauded Sen for not only capturing the man-animal relationship and the dreaded air pollution, but also the recent ground realities of the city, which witnessed the anti-CAA protests at the end of 2019 and early 2020 — through its protagonists.
But Sen said the film never intended to be a “frontal snapshot of the social situation” of the city.
“That was never its founding aspiration. However, when you are training your gaze firmly on your protagonists, different aspects of their lives come into the picture. I saw it in the form of leaks — how the outside world leaks into the inner sanctum of their lives. That’s how some of the reverberations of the outside microcosmic world came in.
“There are different kinds of toxicities intertwined in the film, both the aerial ones and, of course, the ones of social turmoil and so on. But the film does not, in any frontal, direct way, go into that. That’s left by the way of insinuations or hints, where you get a texture that something is ominous or there is some kind of churning going on outside that leaves you with a sense of disquiet,” he concluded.
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