top of page
film 2.png

A Kinship with Birds: All That Breathes

All That Breathes by Shaunak Sen, is a documentary that catches one’s eyes and leaves a strong impression on one’s thoughts. All That Breathes successfully combines a verité-style (the actual recording of events and opinions) human study with stunning landscape photography. The camera shots include the litter darkened landscapes of Delhi. The garbage on the grounds is food to the local animals and scavengers. Rats scurry in and out of the frame as the traffic passes in the background. However, ‘dirty’ Delhi may be shown with garbage littered around; bugs drinking from the pool of water to pigs crossing the roads: The industrial world of Delhi has left a huge impact on the wildlife especially the birds.

Sen has shot the documentary marvellously. Sen’s documentary is about two brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud These kind, humble boys of New Delhi have reportedly treated over 20,000 wounded black kites over the course of the last twenty years. These majestic birds of prey are prone to falling from the sky due to the lack of visibility and poor air quality. The brothers bathe, tend, bandage and feed these birds in a dingy, claustrophobic basement.  In one of the scenes the boys are grinding meat to feed the birds, but the machine has broken down in the blistering heat, the cash flow is slow and the basement space is cramped and one of the brothers remarks that he would die of a heart attack sooner or later. While the brothers occasionally enjoy themselves by playing indoor cricket, their work is a never-ending, generally thankless endeavor. We watch them do everything, from rescuing sick birds from filthy waterways to persuading butchers to give them inexpensive meat to grind up as feed; they also never seem to receive the funds they keep applying for. They dedicate themselves to a mission they started as children: safeguarding the bird of prey known as the black kite, together with their somewhat funny sidekick, Salik. Probably one of my favorite moments in the documentary is when Salik is sitting in a rikshaw, talking to his mother, and suddenly out pops a squirrel from his front shirt pocket. He plays with it for a good ten seconds and then the squirrel jumps back into his pocket.  

Sen follows the disagreements between Saud and Nadeem as they struggle to continue their excellent job in the face of economic pressure and new laws targeting Muslims. The title is actually adopted from the boys’ mothers’ remark when she says ‘har ek cheez saans leti hai’ (everything breathes). This is actually very touching. When you actually enter the boys’ house it is actually cinematic and real. Both set out on a whim to preserve these birds because they had a faith-based idea that serving kites meant they would eat away at one's ill luck or sadness. But there aren’t many birds in the sky anymore. Nadeem and Saud’s story plays out against the background of riots in the Northeast Delhi. They now see the value of living for themselves. “Humans tend to forget that they are also meat,” Shehzad comments at one point. In a city that is self destructive with religious hate and toxic politics, the brothers are insistent on looking after the voiceless. Their haphazard chats reveal a sense of hopelessness, but All That Breathes continues to heal these birds' wounds with perseverance and patience. Nevertheless, as Saud reveals, “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we're just a Band-Aid on it.” My eyes welled with tears at the tender compassion of the brothers for the vulnerable avian friends and at the cruelty of the world we live in. The ninety-two-minute documentary ends with Nadeem looking into the camera and saying ‘Sunn pa raha hai mujhe?’ (Can you hear me?) We must all listen before it’s too late.  

Ben Bernhard, Riju Das, and Saumyananda Sahi’s cinematography deserves praise. It is intriguing to see Shaunak Sen’s films because of his quiet passion and bravery as a director. A number of prestigious accolades, including the Sundance and the Cannes, have been given to the documentary. It was nominated for the Best Documentary by the Oscars. This documentary is an absolute must-watch for the young—for students and everyone who believes in the magic of the movie camera—even after it has passed its prime. The traditional value of beauty and empathy are both taught in All That Breathes.


Dr. Ramandeep Mahal is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English at Guru Nanak Khalsa College Yamunanagar. She received her Doctorate degree from Maharishi Markandeshwar Mullana Ambala in 2018. Her research interests include Anglo-American Literature, Indian Writing in English, African Literature. She is the author of more than twenty research papers.

bottom of page