All That Breathes is very likely to bring us the Oscar for best documentary. Not only is it attention-worthy for its exceptional humanism, but also the deeper political thrusts that have far graver ramifications than the kites(cheel) falling from the sky and being nursed to health by two brothers Nadeem and Saud.
Not even the most diehard cynic can question the selfless compassion of the two brothers. The director Shaunak Sen adopts the reality-television approach. We see the brothers and their family in their portable home in old Delhi not even the size of an average home for two people,housing hundreds of birds.They speak to one another as though they are unaware of the camera. This, if we think about it, is a subtle form of subterfuge , though it appears to be just the opposite. I would have preferred to see Nadeem and Saud acknowledging the presence of the camera.
What I really liked about Nadeem and Saud’s devotion to healing the birds was the absence of selfcongratulations. They are not in this to become heroes.This makes the international acclaim of this documentary fairly ironical. For, here we have the most reluctant heroes I’ve ever seen.If you ask them why they bring wounded kites home they will probably ask you to just cheel.
Remarkably the entire documentary is done without the intervention of a narrator or a narration. It’s just the two brothers in their kerchief-sized sanctuary doing the best they can for these skybound creatures.
It is a beautiful fable , the stuff that fairytales are made of, rendered in the timbre of reality, denuded of vanity and arrogance.
But at the same time All That Breathes, for all its custom-built candour on the shift on the eco-system(there are evocations of dark dingy skylines and birds falling from the sky) has a disturbing political undercurrent . It is no coincidence that this family of bird lovers is Muslim.
The fact this gentle eco-friendly family represents that secular role-model—the humane apotheosized Muslim joint family—is driven home through constant evocations of violence outside and hate speeches on loudspeakers right outside the modest but therapeutic bird sanctuary for kites that Nadeem and Saud have built.
We hear at one point the two brothers discussing their depleting funds to look after their birds, and how the government won’t allow them any foreign funding. The insinuation being, since they are a Muslim family they are looked on with suspicion, no matter how noble their intentions.
In another slanted reference to Islamophobia, one of the brothers’ wives asks gently why they have to migrate to Pakistan or Bangladesh if and when they are branded refugees in India.
Watching All That Breathes is like watching two different stories meshed into one. While the story of two brothers tending to birds is supremely heartwarming, the other story of a Muslim family struggling to keep their altruistic aspirations alive in the midst of growing hostility and isolation seemed incongruous and a little out of place .
Do the birds care whether their caretakers pray at a temple or a mosque?