Shaunak Sen has a knack for finding poets in unusual places. In Cities Of Sleep (2015) , it’s the owner of a homeless shelter that doubles as a movie parlour, who says things like “We ingest the night”. In All That Breathes (2022), it’s two brothers in unlovely east Delhi, who tend to injured kites. “Cheelon ko gosht khilane se sawab milta hai,” one of them explains. “Woh aapki dikkatein kha jaati hain (You will be rewarded if you feed kites. They eat away your problems).”
Cities Of Sleep was a remarkable debut. A documentary about the night shelters of Delhi, it was minutely observed, empathetic but not cloying, able to see the people who populate and run the shelters as complex beings capable of grift and fabrication. It was also a smart treatise on the city and the cut-rate philosophers it engenders. All That Breathes, Sen’s second feature, playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival, builds on the strengths of his debut, while taking in more of the world.
Brothers Nadeem and Saud repair kites. In the basement of their Wazirabad home, they take injured raptors out of cardboard boxes one by one and diagnose, bind wings, give medicine, feed and house them until they are well enough to be set free. It’s a modest setup: just the two siblings and an earnest young man named Salik. Nadeem’s wife pitches in sometimes, when he’s too tired from his day job and Saud is busy. This is not a rich household—the meat grinder and the generator need replacing, and the equipment and storage facilities are bare-bones. Their application for much-needed foreign funding is rejected at one point; only towards the end is it approved.
In almost every frame, we are offered evidence of just how polluted a city Delhi has become. The first shot—unbroken over three-and-a-half minutes—tracks slowly across a garbage dump. The family discusses the day’s AQI over meals—a depressingly familiar routine for residents of the Capital. When water floods their home in the monsoon, it’s topped with snowy drifts of chemical foam. The city is fit for neither man nor bird, yet both have found a way to survive. The Ghazipur garbage hill has become a source of food for kites (one man compares them to microbiomes), and they use cigarette butts in their nests as pest repellents.
Had All That Breathes just been a nature doc, it would still have been an urgent document of its times. But Sen extends the idea of toxicity, on the ground and in the air, to human relations. Halfway into the film, protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) start appearing on the periphery of the action. Later, there are phone conversations in which the brothers and Salik promise that they are safe—the 2020 Delhi riots have begun. Like most Muslim families on the outskirts of Delhi, they are vulnerable. Saud says matter-of-factly that there has been violence just 2km from their home.
There’s a beautiful scene where the brothers are offering a prayer at their mother’s grave. A bird calls. Without moving, Nadeem says, “Spotted.” They continue to pray in silence. He had heard a spotted owlet. Their mother would have approved; it was she who instilled in them a fascination for all living creatures—not just humans and pets but “all that breathes”. Here is photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson’s ‘little human detail’: a moment that reveals everything. It’s why we understand Nadeem’s response when his wife asks him to join a sit-in against the CAA with her, saying “It’s important”. “It is,” Nadeem says. “So is my work.”
Time and again, Sen, working with camerapersons Ben Bernhard, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi, zooms in to show something—a turtle in a garbage heap, a frog in the grass— that has adapted to living in a human environment. The intricacy is often breathtaking, like the changes of focus that shows us a spider’s web, then a guard and two dogs in the background, then reveals a lizard, and another, in the foreground, all in the same shot. A wall of buildings is reflected in a puddle, around which circle a multitude of kites. In another shot, the camera dwells on a piece of plastic waste in shallow water. We see insects skitter across it and trees reflected. Then, an aeroplane flies across the surface—a small miracle.
A director with an eye for eccentricities will always be rewarded by the universe—I laughed out loud when Salik casually pulls a baby squirrel out of his shirt pocket, no explanation given. It’s testament to the patience and immersion of Sen’s approach that he is around and ready when moments like this present themselves. At times, All That Breathes reminded me of the Italian documentarist Gianfranco Rosi, whose scenes are also beautifully filmed and seem to rise from the material unforced and unbidden.
I have encountered more striking images in Sen’s two features than in all the Hindi fiction films of the last five or six years. But chances are you haven’t seen Cities Of Sleep, and you may not see All That Breathes either. I caught the former at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015; till this day, it’s neither streaming in India nor on physical media. I hope All That Breathes gets a better deal, but I'm not hopeful. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya'sThe Cinema Travellers, a revelatory Indian documentary from 2016, which won the L’Œil d’or special mention at the Cannes Film Festival, is still unavailable here. Two of the most acclaimed Indian films from last year were documentaries—Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing With Fire and Payal Kapadia’s A Night Of Knowing Nothing, winner of the L’Œil d’or award for Best Documentary at Cannes. Almost no one here has seen either. It’s high time the makers and promoters of Indian documentaries ask themselves why their work is accessible to arthouse festival attendees abroad but not to the audiences who would best understand them.