An Interview With Shaunak Sen
All That Breathes is Shaunak Sen’s second documentary film set in Delhi, released seven years after his debut, Cities of Sleep, in 2022. Sen creates magical portraits of life from Delhi’s socioeconomic margins, depicting the city’s bricolage complexity. Yet amidst this complexity, he manages to craft deeply personal narratives through unique and charismatic protagonists. All That Breathes tells the story of two brothers who rescue and treat injured birds of prey called Black Kites. The film is set against a backdrop of environmental apocalypse—its characters piercing through the thickness of Delhi’s polluted skies. Sen finds a wonderful balance between hope and despair in a world fraught with more-than-human precarity and violence. All That Breathes was awarded the Sundance Grand Jury Award and the L’Oeil D’or (‘Golden Eye’) at Cannes in 2022. Jonathon Turnbull sat down with Sen to discuss his film for Anthroposphere.
All That Breathes explores the relationship between people, nature, and air pollution in Delhi through the story of two brothers and their fascination with Black Kites. How did you arrive at this topic?
People living in Delhi in recent years have become used to this grey hazy monotone atmosphere. The air has become stagnant; a concrete thick substance. There’s a sense that the very environment we’re ensconced in is slowly becoming hostile to our own wellbeing and sustenance; a creeping sensation that the air-conditioner of spaceship earth has gone awry. There’s a new kind of vaporous city overhead. At its most incipient form, when the film was an evanescent glow, a haze at the back of my mind, I had a sense of this visual texture; this feeling and sensorium I wanted to capture.
Every time I was stuck in traffic, I would see these tiny dots gliding in the sky: the Black Kites. They became the picture postcard of the dystopian Delhi skies. I was never interested in using ‘the human’ as the absolute reference point for thinking about the Anthropocene. So, that was my vague conceptual scaffold, and I started reading up. Of course, as you well know, all the conversations with Maan Barua, you and others at Cambridge instilled a broader interest in the general domain of the ‘more-than-human’. Soon, I was also reading the excellent literature around birds like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which are explorations of obsessive hypnotic love affairs between humans and birds.
I kept telling the crew it would be interesting to make a film where the audience walks out of the cinema and immediately looks up – a film that would enchant the sky and the birds in it, but with the texture of a fairy tale that’s gone horribly wrong. So I began looking for people who instantiate, embody, and flesh out these ideas.
One day, I chanced upon this article about a Muslim family – the ‘kite brothers’, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud – with a deep and profound relationship with the sky and its birds. I arranged to meet them in their basement; this tiny and derelict space, full of metal cutting machines with a sense of industrial decay. But as I looked around, I saw these magisterial but vulnerable raptors. The space was inherently cinematic because of this endemic bipolarity. The brothers had fallen in love with kites as teenagers and due to the enduring grace of that initial charisma, they’ve treated around 20,000 Black Kites that have fallen from the sky over the last 15-20 years, with relatively little financial support.
One of the reasons the kites fall is that people fly paper kites. A lot of the kite flying areas are dingy and have narrow lanes, and when the horizontal axis is so cramped and claustrophobic, very often there is a psychic crutch that gets deployed vis-à-vis the vertical axis. Indeed, a new city comes into being when one thinks of the vertical axis and different forms of ‘inhabiting’ it, as Tim Ingold would say. In this kind of inhabitation, though, collisions between the paper kites and the Black Kites are common. The brothers think the kites falling from the sky is symptomatic of a deeper malaise within the city.
But we weren’t interested in making a sweet film about good people doing good things. The brothers’ story was the emotional anchor of the film, but our interest was in ‘life writ large’ – to show the coexistence and simultaneity of different stakes of life that jostle cheek-by-jowl in the city. The idea was to excavate the inner life of the brothers by taking these poetic and lyrical forays into the city and its ecology. But the ecological is not mentioned explicitly in the film; no one talks about air pollution. You only sense it when somebody says, ‘my throat feels like charcoal.’ The outside world leaks into the film. What you’re seeing is climate change told through the emotional bickerings of two brothers. That’s what this film is about: microscopic things showing up a big issue – from the brothers to the kites to all that breathes.
You weave in conceptual themes beautifully. For instance, one line says: ‘As Delhi’s air changed, so did its metabolism’ whilst another prompts us to ‘think of the city as a stomach.’ I wondered how, if at all, you engaged with conceptual work concerning animals, the city, metabolism, and air?
Metabolism is an interesting theme. This image of churning emerged from the beginning while talking with the brothers who think of the kites as the city’s trash collectors. In the film, we hear about how the garbage mountain would climb higher and higher if the kites weren’t there, and how the kites eat this massive volume of trash every day. Garbage literally dissipates into the sky as the kites eat it and fly off, contrasting with so many of our usual relationships with food, which move downwards. I thought of a long panoramic shot of garbage flying up that would show how this works.
I’m also interested in ‘metabolic drift’. The kites drift atop the city; they’re part of this eddy of metabolic churning which makes us think of the city as a broader machinery of appetites, hunger, regurgitations, cuts, and care – and the brothers situate themselves precisely in this assemblage. They often use metaphors of the city as a microbiome and the kites as good bacteria within it.
If you follow the emotional logic of the brothers and how their conflict develops through the film – especially when they’re told that their foreign funding for their project hasn’t come through – you see how these concepts emerged. We see them bathing a small sparrow cock, ‘the shikra’, and worrying about what’s going to happen with their funding. We see the lather of soap on the floor of the basement which cuts to the toxic lather on the river Yamuna. And we have a mountain of trash with kites overhead. The brothers meet the main meat seller and ask him to reduce prices, but he says no. They go back home and have a terrible fight. And immediately after that, Saud says that everything that you see up there and down here is a tiny symptom of this broader malaise. This is the malaise of a metabolic drift gone awry, a bigger system on the brink of momentously falling apart.
The suturing of their emotional journey with the epic style of shooting, the landfill, and the way in which they speak to the camera gave rise to these themes. The fact that I’m familiar with this discourse allowed me to bring it out in the edit, but all of this is coming entirely from the brothers. My conceptual training did not originate this material.
The language you use is often apocalyptic, casting nature as biting back in a sense, like Gaia. Is that something you wanted to communicate?
The brothers have front row seats for the apocalypse as the birds fall from the sky and into their basement. I kept thinking about theoretical frames for the film – theirs is a kind of ‘put-your-head-down’ wry humanness; they must soldier on as there’s work to be done as long as birds continue to fall. They are not tragic figures, but there are pockets of inner turbulence and darkness that the film tries to access. The idea was to capture the grace of being alive to the kinship of all that breathes. These are the entry points into the broader sense of Gaia.
But so much of the Gaia discourse is coloured by an almost catatonic, paralytic weakness about being in an accelerated drive towards tragedy. I tried to look at nonhuman life as not just a passive witness to human activities, but as an improviser, with agencies at play. I think cinema has a specific valence in articulating this.
Interesting. While filming the diverse array of creatures that appear in the film, then, how did you adapt your filmmaking practice?
It was awful and exhilarating. Nobody in the crew had ever worked with animals before. No one has shot a nature doc in the conventional sense, which was a good thing, because we weren’t aspiring for that kind of look, where the dazzling beauty of the animal itself takes your breath away.
We generated a bank of thirty shots from our heads and did crazy amounts of recce-ing. We went out every day looking for animals, and picked up a knack of knowing where to find them over time. It was hellish waiting for our turtle to show up. A lot of it is just accidental contingency.
We developed a form of long uncut shot when working with animals. You see a turtle clambering up a pile of garbage and watching the traffic whirring by; their urban co-presence expressed through slow cinematica, shift focuses, and the staging of two kinds of temporalities.
So did making this film encourage you to see the city in a new light?
I became more alert to the density of neighbourly relations with animals. The ways in which human infrastructure gets redeployed, re-weaponised, and re-instrumentalised by non-human life is unbelievable. You've seen monkeys in Delhi dangling off electricity wires, right? That’s a known thing. But we couldn't find a single air conditioner in my colony without a pigeon’s nest – not a single one. It's quite amazing how old nooks and crannies in buildings get repurposed.
One shot that unfortunately didn’t make it into the film involved a bundle of electricity wires. The camera moves constantly and after a while, a black wire suddenly starts moving. Then it pops its head up, and you realise it’s a cobra! We’d gone there because we’d heard of this cobra incident where the authorities were called. To talk about the repurposing of infrastructure is one thing, but to see a black wire become a snake is another! I didn’t need conceptual words, the shot itself did the trick. That’s what’s special about communicating these ideas via cinema.
In a way, a lot of documentary work – and perhaps ethnography also – is about birdwatching. The similarities are stunning: showing up, blending into the background, and being patient. A good birdwatcher won’t wear colourful clothes, won’t make sudden movements, and will decelerate. They don’t look through individual branches, but try to spot movement. They train their eyes to spot tremors at the fringes of their vision. And a lot of creative, observational documentary practice is inherently like birdwatching. Of course, in this case, this actually became literal and all those metaphors get stapled in.
Traditional nature documentaries often exoticise Nature, depicting it as this wild, clean, and pure habitat removed from humans. In another interview, you said that ‘the city wants to give an impression that nature happens elsewhere.’ All That Breathes clearly blurs the distinction between Nature (or wilderness) and the city, providing several naturalistic facts relating to the birds’ urban adaptation. Could you tell us more about Delhi’s Black Kites?
The kite has the most successful urban career in Delhi. There is a staggering statistic that shows that it is only in the last decade-and-a-half that they’ve become the densest population of Black Kites in the world, which wasn’t the case earlier. I think the cause for this successful urban career is that kites are opportunistic scavengers. They are known to adapt through playful acts. There are also cultural reasons. In Muslim areas and households, they take chunks of meat, shout ‘aao’, and throw it into the sky. It’s a kind of playtime thing for children but there is also a religious belief behind this act; that every time you feed the kite, you wash away your sins. There is also an addendum to this, which suggests that you transfer your sins to the kites and as they eat away your meat, they eat away your troubles. Of course, their hunger is insatiable, so they keep eating it away.
In a lot of areas, you can find people on terraces with packets of dripping entrails and innards and they toss them up into the sky; people of all ages. In fact, there are people who do this professionally. There is this old gentleman with a white beard, and I remember seeing him in the early morning one day with the tips of his milky white beard crusted in red. He comes on a bicycle every day, carrying big plastic pouches. He has bits of meat that he sells. He picks up meat scraps from meat shops and sells them to others. There is a growing political economy of people working in this cosmological commensality. The kite gets enfolded into cultural idioms, folklore, and legend. For example, there’s a kid’s idiom: ‘there’s gold in the kite’s nest,’ because they’re attracted to shiny objects. The kite is something of an epiphenomenon in a bunch of idioms. If you collated animal-related speech-utterances in Delhi, the kite will be up there with dogs and cats, which is quite remarkable.
What kinds of filmic practices and cinematic techniques helped you to blur these lines – to ‘animate the urban’ as Maan Barua and Anindya Sinha would say – in both the film’s visual narrative and through its grammar?
Very early on we realised it would be interesting to think about the divisions and blurs between foreground and background. Take for instance the scene where you see a raucous celebration and a 20-foot-high bonfire. It goes from happy to tense, and in so doing, shifts focus to a tiny snail moving in the foreground. In a way, the film aspires to create a deceleration and aspect shift to non-human life, or to what André Bazin would call the ‘ontological other’. The idea was to shun any anthropomorphism regarding these animal shots and to render off-kilter, aesthetically, this kind of Umwelt-y bubble they are experiencing. When we shift to the snail, the sound of the beating drums in the background gets muffled and it enters a hyper-real acoustic sphere. In the same frame you see the human and the animal, and within the shot itself you journey from one experiential world to another, moving from background to foreground, and vice versa. The camera becomes a suturing tool between animality and the human species.
I think the visual realm is the only way to convey entanglement properly. Cinema is a privileged form that allows the dense representational logic needed to convey entanglement. Of course, the film overall is about the lives of the brothers and their relationships with these wondrously beautiful birds that glides in the sky, like magisterial lazy dots. But I wanted to convey a broader sense of entanglement between humans and animals in Delhi, so the film is often punctuated by shots of animals that play out for long periods, so they aren’t just interruptions in a human storyline. The edit is structured to make the audience get used to the fact that these are not cutaways. For instance, the film begins with a long four-minute shot of rats, and then moves into the world of traffic and dogs. Next, you start seeing snapshot vignettes of a family and their absurd, surreal home. Then, in the middle, you see shots with a languorous tilt-down to horses and pigs, and we stay with it for minutes and minutes. Later, you see a turtle clambering through a pile of garbage while watching traffic go by. Or you see a spider spinning a web as it shifts to the background with a security guard outside a posh house late at night, sitting with an electric racket killing mosquitoes. Essentially, the idea here was to show these portraits of deep entanglement. They’re not necessarily encounters with a ‘man-meets-animal moment’, but an ‘animal in the recesses of the human’ moment; human infrastructure in the minor key, as Maan Barua would say.
This line in the film struck me: ‘Birds are plummeting from the sky. Delhi is a gaping wound and we’re a tiny band aid on it.’ It seems to emphasise the precarity of the work done by the brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud, who fund their wildlife rescue hospital through a soap-dispenser business in their basement. Could you give us an update on the brothers and tell us how you think this film is changing things for them?
Through newspaper articles, their work has been well-documented. The New York Times article happened mid-way through our shoot. It affected their lives, and so affected the shooting. It gave them a certain kind of visibility that they had not enjoyed before, and it also triggered some donations for them.
The film getting a platform at Sundance and Cannes – which they came to – also helped a lot, and there’s been a lot of media coverage about the film every day. There’s a spotlight on them now. They were extremely happy about it winning – beside themselves with joy. But as always, they aren’t doing too well financially, although they did make their enclosures on the terrace slightly bigger recently.
The mission of the film was to tell their story compellingly enough for more people to become interested in them, so they could communicate the special knowledge they’ve acquired over time, and receive the financial support they so desperately need. I went to their house for dinner recently, and they are still in a fair bit of denial that their story could be interesting to so many people. They’re healthily sceptical about how much will change. But I’m guardedly optimistic. You have to be cautious in your optimism if you have lived with such impossible odds.
Could you tell me more about the background of the brothers?
Their origin story is the first thing I heard when I met them, which completely drew me in. The brothers were amateur bodybuilders when they were teenagers, and they obviously didn't have the internet, so they would read magazines like Muscle and Fitness and Flex. That’s how they gained their initial knowledge of muscles and tendons and flesh. They were never formally trained.
When they found their first injured kite and took it to a veterinary hospital, it was returned to them because it was a ‘non-vegetarian bird’. That’s why they took it home and decided to treat it themselves. They have an improvisatory, slap-dash style because of their original interest in human biceps and things like that. It was completely hit-or-miss, and over time they acquired bursts of knowledge through different conversations with people and other experts.
For the most part, though, they’re largely self-taught. Theirs is a kind of auto-didactism that is truly rare because usually auto-didacts don't work with this degree of hyper-specialisation and knowledge. They figured out their own techniques. I have met vets who have come to their house and said there’s nobody in the country who does better surgeries or has more precision, and all of these are techniques they have figured out themselves. So, if you ask them what happens when a paper kite string collides with a bird, they will tell you about the four different kinds of collision, describing how the paper kite hit the bird, what the cut will be like, how the bird will be, and where the string would end up. The brothers can give you the exact details of which muscles and tendons will get cut, where it will fall, how long it is going to survive. Depending on the slant and angle of the cut, they have this elaborate permutation of injury prototypes and have determined their own forms of repair for them. Insofar as conversations about jugaad or improvisation go, this is a whole inventory of rigorously improvised care techniques.
It’s important to stress the words ‘improvisation’, ‘wonder’, and ‘play’ because they have a vivid hunger to help and to save; a desperation to not let life go to waste. Their sense of wonder for the birds combined with their desire to play – to come up with new techniques – is how it started, in a tiny room with a family of five. Different techniques of repair came from this intense sense of improvisation, wonder, and play.
How did it feel to make a film during a time of major political unrest in India?
It was clear to me from the very beginning that this film was not a political snapshot of the contemporary moment. I wanted to firmly focus on the brothers and what they do. But acoustically things leaked in, forming a more subtle, nuanced kind of world where things seem more densely constellated. For the brothers, politics was about the cosmological politics between man and bird, between humans and sky. When Saud is asked whether he is going to the protests, he says, ‘but the birds are falling, who is going to look after the birds.’ They’re both very politically aware. Don’t think of them as living in some kind of prelapsarian world which is cut off from politics. But they’re invested in something else. If there’s something like a grey optimism of Delhi’s Anthropocene, they are interesting instantiations of it. I think one of the reviews called this film ‘Do Look Up!’ as a play on the Hollywood film. It’s actually that. Keep looking at the skydom that’s about to shatter into the ground!
Final question. Cities of Sleep was about the horizontal axis. All That Breathes is about the vertical axis. Will your next film be in 3D? What sort of inklings are floating around in your mind for a next project?
I’m very interested in pushing this form of the creative documentary, using tools from fiction and storytelling. I definitely don’t want to go back to a hand-held, gritty form. It will definitely be based in a city, probably Delhi as I’m most colloquially and vernacularly embedded there and have a sense of its intimate flavours. I’m interested in sound and music, but it’s too early to say. I just want to go back to the library, read, in a hyperlinked way, and then see what comes to me.
Thank you, Shaunak, for a wonderful conversation. We’re all eagerly awaiting what comes next!
Jonathon Turnbull is a geographer at the University of Cambridge. He is interested in nuclear natures at Chornobyl, animal geographies, and digital ecologies.