Stricken by smog: the miraculous, Oscar-tipped film about Delhi’s bird hospital

Years in the making and boasting astonishing footage, All That Breathes tells the extraordinary story of the bodybuilding brothers getting pollution-choked birds flying again. We meet its director

There is an astonishing moment near the beginning of All That Breathes, a luminous documentary about the labours of two brothers who rescue birds of prey falling from the polluted skies of Delhi. Salik Rehman, a young assistant, is feeding an injured raptor on a rooftop. A chipmunk scampers along the balcony and, seeing the bird, abruptly turns tail. Then, suddenly, a wild black kite dive-bombs Rehman, neatly lifts his glasses from his nose and carries them away.

It’s the kind of small, strange miracle that belongs in magical realism fiction. The fact that it is real can only mean that director Shaunak Sen spent thousands of hours gathering material for his all-conquering feature-film, which has won best documentary at Sundance and Cannes and is now nominated at the Baftas and the Oscars.

“We were there for a long time. We shot for almost three years,” says Sen, an eloquent, philosophical Delhiite who is speaking from a hotel room near Munich in the midst of an epic promotional tour. “But the moment with the glasses being taken is really not a function of time – it’s a function of pure, liquid luck. I could have spent 10 years shooting and that moment wouldn’t have happened, and for it to come when the aperture was correct and the framing and the light were OK – we have to thank our good stars for it.”

Sen’s first full-length film, Cities of Sleep, slipped into the world of Delhi’s rough sleepers and its “sleep mafia”. All That Breathes enters the universe of another set of struggling urban underdogs: its non-human inhabitants. This poetic, dreamy but avowedly unsentimental film is adorned with cameos from myna birds and mosquito larvae, turtles on rubbish dumps, pigeons, goats and rats as well as the magisterial kites, with their stern, amber gaze, as if sat in judgment of the pollution around them.

Film ideas, says Sen, begin as “an ineffable glow in the back of your head, where you only have a sense of texture and tone”. He wanted to explore “the human, non-human entanglement” and also the air, because “everybody in Delhi is preoccupied with the air in one way or another; it’s this grey, opaque expanse that’s just laminating every aspect of your life”.

Then he was stuck in a traffic jam pondering the “dystopian picture-postcard of Delhi, this monochromatic sky and these birds falling from it” and he Googled: “Where do birds that fall out of the sky go?” Brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud came up: former bodybuilders who rescue and rehabilitate birds of prey in the garage of their modest home in north Delhi. “When you visit, their house has a kind of surreal, cinematic density – this grubby, dank basement full of industrial decay, and in the middle of it, these regal birds,” says Sen. “After that, the film is a fever dream. You jump off a cliff and the next few years become a freefall.”

Trafficking in micro-miracles … from left, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud.
Trafficking in micro-miracles … from left, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud. Photograph: Dogwoof

To obtain the intimate realism he desired, Sen first set himself the task with the brothers – who were used to journalists reporting on their work – of disappearing. “Nobody can give access to that kind of intimacy even if they wanted to, because it’s really not a question of volition,” he says. “Initially, they were very media savvy. My challenge was to break that. The main weapon in the toolkit of a documentary film-maker is boredom. The first month you shoot constantly. Finally, you reach an unselfconsciousness, where people are being instead of behaving. It is only when you get your first yawn in front of the camera that you know the material will now be usable.”

Slowly, the brothers’ stories emerge. Saud is a quiet vet who performs daily miracles on dozens of birds brought in boxes to his makeshift operating theatre; his older brother, Shehzad, is the more garrulous fixer, who applies for charitable funds to sustain their hand-to-mouth enterprise. “When we started, I didn’t know what we were making, but I did not want to make a wildlife documentary. I did not want to make a conventional sociopolitical vérité doc. And most of all, I did not want to make a sweet film of nice people doing good things.”

Shehzad and Saud may “traffic in micro-miracles”, as Sen puts it, but their story is not saccharin. He was drawn to their “grown-up, grumpy, wry resilience” and was fortunate that they have a compelling, bickering dynamic that injects jeopardy into their story. They also reveal themselves to be deep thinkers. Sen found himself keeping a diary of their “clever, philosophical droppings”, then he persuaded the brothers to add a voiceover to communicate them. Their first kite, the brothers remembered, “looked like a furious reptile from another planet”. Today, they observe, “humanity is now the natural environment”.

‘Pure liquid luck’ … director Shaunak Sen at the Cannes festival.
‘Pure liquid luck’ … director Shaunak Sen at the Cannes festival. Photograph: Stéphane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

Sen is “a huge fan” of British nature writing – Robert Macfarlane, JA Baker’s The Peregrine and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – but through Shehzad and Saud he tells a global story of “neighbourliness or kinship with non-human life” and of how, by improvisation and ingenuity, non-human life still finds niches in an environment dominated by people and their pollution.

“I was very interested in making this film about the interiority of the mind and the finer philosophical depths that the brothers were able to access because of their work. They come across as complete organic intellectuals,” says Sen. “Their voiceover became a kind of bilingual style – the here-and-now observational style and the voiceover inner-life-of-mine style. It makes you reflect on the entanglement of life forms. If it had become the story of one family, it wouldn’t have become a planetary thing, it wouldn’t have become truly ecological.”

For all the brothers’ philosophical panache, Sen was “a bit worried” about how their occasionally lugubrious demeanour would come across on camera. Luckily, their assistant, Rehman, provides a counterfoil with his “unvarnished, pristine innocence,” smiles Sen. “He also has this quality of attracting accidents.” There’s an alarming scene where Rehman and Saud swim across a swirling brown river to rescue a kite. And there’s a beautiful moment where Rehman is transporting rescued birds in a rickshaw and a chipmunk pops out of his shirt pocket. Rehman, says Sen, makes audiences laugh. “He has an unbridled love and gentleness for the animals. He was dramatically, emotionally and cinematically tremendously important.”

As well as urban ecology, All That Breathes unexpectedly becomes a story of complicated human ecology, too. Gradually, the tense noise of nearby demonstrations intrudes on the bird sanctuary. The brothers are Muslim, religious intolerance is growing and riots are spreading through their neighbourhood. “This was meant to be a purely ecological and philosophical film, and an emotional exploration of the brothers’ inner lives. But the city of Delhi was going through a truly tumultuous time. We had to wrestle with whether to point the camera streetwards.”

Bath-time … a fallen kite is cleaned up.
Bath-time … a fallen kite is cleaned up. Photograph: © Submarine Deluxe

Sen decided that whenever troubling external events impinged upon their bird rescue filming, they would place it in the film. “The real world often leaks in acoustically. I prefer this kind of oblique, tangential presence to a front-and-centre hammering away about what the sociopolitical situation is.” What emerges is a very real portrait of how wider political events impinge on the lives of ordinary people.

The film ends on a bittersweet note, but what has happened since filming stopped is more uplifting. Shehzad, Saud and Rehman have enjoyed joining Sen at festivals around the world and their animal rescue centre has been – modestly – upgraded. The film’s producers have donated enough funds to support it for a year, and donations are only likely to grow with the film’s success. Sen is cautious, however. “I don’t want to simplistically overstate what a film can do to change a family’s life. Hopefully it provides a kind of oasis, but in the long-term I don’t know.”

And an Oscar? Sen is too self-effacing to express anything other than “extreme happiness” and gratitude for his nomination, but the fact he admits to feeling “relief” when the nomination was announced suggests that he has come round to the idea that he has made an exceptional film that chimes with audiences around the world. “When something this big happens, your brain almost struggles to wrap itself around the new coordinates of life. It’s not a small, simple emotion – it’s a complicated, garbled emotion,” he says. “After all of this is done and the Academy Awards are over, I’m going to unplug for two or three months somewhere very quiet and obscure, turn inwards and start thinking properly about what to do next.”

• All That Breathes is on Sky Documentaries on 8 February at 9pm.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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