In the dingy environs of a concrete workshop on a tumbledown street in north-east Delhi – in the smoggy skies above and the waste grounds below – Shaunak Sen’s deft, visionary documentary finds the modern city teeming with life, which is to say a crucible of struggle, ferment, resilience and reinvention. “Evolution favours experimentation,” we’re told in this fraught fable of two brothers aiding Delhi’s black kites as they fall out of the sky. The film suggests a spiral dance between the possibility and the necessity of adaptation.
Every life form adjusts to the city, muses Nannu, the elder brother, in the film’s occasional voiceover. Urban kites are more evolved than their rural cousins; some use cigarette butts as parasite deterrents. It’s the very success of black kites in Delhi, home to the world’s densest population of the bird, that gets them taken for granted, but Nannu and Saud have always revered their effortless grace in the air; former amateur wrestlers, the brothers are also self-taught experts in bird surgery, renowned for their inventive treatments of the injuries that fell so many of the kites. (Sen doesn’t press the point, but in Delhi these birds must fight for the skies with the sharpened strings of their colourful toy namesakes.)
Nannu and Saud are Muslim, and in Islam feeding kites earns you sawab, or religious credit – kites are said to eat away your difficulties, wash away sins. Opportunistic scavengers, they certainly help digest the city’s waste – Nannu likens them to microbiomes in the city’s gut. But like Muslims, kites are also meat-eaters; the brothers’ first patient had been turned away from the local animal hospital for being a “non-vegetarian bird”. All the while, India is busy building barriers of identity and exclusion; Sen looks askance at the threat of the country’s 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “Life itself is kinship. We all share a community of air,” Nannu opines, noting a new “disgust” about some people at large. Perhaps his hopes for studying abroad are also about flight, or respite, though pervasive poverty and a note of nuclear threat add to the inescapable haze.
Men of burden and bliss, the brothers keep their heads down, eyes on their work; their eager young assistant Salik brings some levity. Sen’s watchful, sculpted style, meanwhile, bursts the human bubble, with patient, exquisite panning shots and focus-shifts to myriad other life-forms occupying these spaces: rats, monkeys, centipedes, snails. Layering urban ecology, spiritual philosophy, politics and distilled character study, All That Breathes is a remarkable, vital work of cinema.
► All that Breathes is in UK cinemas from Friday.