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Wednesday, July 24, 2024  
17 Muharram 1446  

The Indian film Pakistanis should be rooting for at the Oscars

All That Breathes has lessons in rebellion in Modi-led India
All That Breathes - Official Trailer

Every year, Oscar night has given the world plenty of firsts to talk about. This year’s the Academy Awards are already purported to have many first-time winners (here’s to looking at you, Michelle Yeoh) and we should be most interested in a documentary from India. If All That Breathes, directed by Delhi-based Shaunak Sen, does take the golden statue home on March 13, it will become the first Indian feature-length doc to do so.

All That Breathes is about Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, two brothers in North Delhi, who have turned their basement into a bird clinic and shelter. The self-taught Muslim brothers rescue and treat birds, primarily black kites, falling at an alarming rate from Delhi’s polluted skies.

The documentary’s award-winning streak began last year at Sundance as it enthralled the festival circuit, bagging accolades on the way to the Oscars. Last week, All That Breathes made its streaming debut.

But why should Pakistani viewers care? An obvious reason is that All That Breathes is a subtle indictment of the rampant Islamophobia in Modi’s India. Moreover, given that the film was created in a climate of brutal state censorship, Pakistanis should cheer it on and our filmmakers could draw inspiration from such cinematographic resistance.

Like our very own Oscar-shortlisted Joyland, All That Breathes is set in a gradual, visceral, and soft but deeply impactful tone. This comes as a relief from the didactical, nationalistic and message-oriented hammering we are used to in mainstream Bollywood (Kashmir Files, Mission Majnu) and Pakistani (Yalghaar, Zarrar) feature films. Director Shaunak Sen connected the need for this subliminal tone to the ultimate purpose of a film: “The film has to move people and not be immediately transparent in terms of what it is saying,” he said in an interview.

The subliminal message

Two Muslim brothers nurse birds who crash out of Delhi’s smog-filled atmosphere. The first shot of this documentary is a slow pan juxtaposing city traffic and roadside garbage piles with a coterie of living breathing creatures like termites and rats feeding on it. It sets up the expectation that you will encounter a nature-against-capitalism feature for the next 97 minutes.

This is how All That Breathes draws you into its layered storytelling. It starts with Saud, one of the brothers recounting how they ventured into what is now an internationally accredited wildlife protection NGO. They had taken an injured kite to their local veterinary hospital, only to be turned away because the bird was “non-veg”. Snippets of news bulletins foreground the passage of the CAA bill that would strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship. It is then that you realize why Sen chose the allegory of fallen meat-eating birds consumed by the very air that houses them.

   Director Shaunak Sen
Director Shaunak Sen

Rebellion and hope

There is an instance when the brothers are too busy with the bird shelter to go to an anti-CAA protest. That is when the beguiling nature of their rebellion reveals itself. The younger Nadeem feels trapped in the smallness of their bird-saving mission, rendering it a bandaid solution to an ever-intensifying ecological catastrophe. He wants to travel, learn, and expand their service. Saud on the other hand is consumed body and soul with the kites he heals. In that sense, Nadeem personifies the individualist, who rebels against-all-odds against state discrimination. Saud rebels by fortifying against Hindutva hatred, seeking refuge in the birds, the co-victims, to continue to live in a custom-made sense of being safe by saving.

Some shots betray whatever fuzziness you might have felt looking at minuscule sparrows and their vivacious second flights. A brother is surrounded by a spiral display of kite corpses on the rooftop. Floating clouds of foam as the floor is washed become an ominous sign rendered in apocalyptic cinematography. The black kites (too many, too noisy, too unhygienic) disgust the Delhiites and invoke ghastly images of a community in the eyes of saffron-clad Hindu extremists.

Paradoxically, if there is any vestige of hope in All That Breathes, it comes from the same vilified black kites. The birds have evolved to fight back to adjust to a man-made ecological malaise. They are asserting the right to belong to the ever-thickening smokey air. The film goes from tight close-ups of the Argus-eyed bird to wide shots of chimerical skies, waxing and waning to bring everything and everyone under a singular kinship of air.

The global success of All That Breathes comes on the heels of a handful of documentary features from India sweeping awards internationally. Last year at the Oscars, Writing With Fire became the first Indian title to be nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s telling of a newspaper run by Dalit women is in equal parts subversive and traditional. The same year another Indian title, The Night of Knowing Nothing, won the prestigious Oeil d’Or (Golden Eye) award for Best Documentary at Cannes.

The nomination and probable win of All That Breathes should not be considered in isolation however. It is just another peak in what Indian film critic Rahul Desai calls the “Golden Era for Indian narrative nonfiction film-making.”

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