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'It's also a love story about two brothers who fall in love with a bird species'

Last updated on: January 24, 2023 19:32 IST

After winning awards at Sundance and Cannes, Director Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes has now been nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Feature Film category.

IMAGE: Director Shaunak Sen at the photocall for All That Breathes at the Cannes film festival at the Palais des Festivals, May 23, 2022. Photographs: John Phillips/Getty Images

This interview was first posted on on June 9, 2022.

At 34, Shaunak Sen is having a year that most young film-makers can only dream of.

In January, his documentary All That Breathes premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary section.

Last fortnight, it won the L'Œil d'or (Golden Eye) award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The award is presented to a documentary playing across sections at the festival, and was created in 2015. Last year, another Indian film -- Payal Kapadia's A Night of Knowing Nothing -- received the same honour.

All The Breathes is a story about two Wazirabad, Delhi-based brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, and their assistant Salik Rehman, who work out of their basement. They painstakingly clean the wings of hundreds of black kite birds, who have fallen from the skies because of the pollution in the city's skies.

It is a beautifully told narrative that looks at the horrors of Delhi's environmental crisis, but from the perspective of the man-bird relationship. It also refers to the political turmoil during the anti-CAA protests.

The past couple of years have seen a group of remarkable Indian documentary film-makers take their projects to the global stage, from the Oscar nomination for Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's Writing With Fire to the awards for Kapadia's and Sen's films.

Last year, another documentary focusing on Delhi's environment, Rahul Jain's Invisible Demons, also premiered at the Cannes festival.

In a way, we are living in the golden age of Indian documentaries where young film-makers are taking up strong social issues but giving them human dimensions, so the stories can be compelling, while also marrying the narratives with high cinematic art.

Shaunak's first documentary, the moving Cities of Sleep, explores the struggles of Delhi's homeless during the harsh winters when they desperately look for shelters at night.

All That Breathes is a more ambitious project, in terms of the concept, the style in which the film was shot and the socio-political conditions in the city that stay in the background, and yet inform the narrative.

Shaunak tells long time contributor Aseem Chhabra, "Wherever I would drive, I would look up during traffic lights, and I would see these tiny dots, lazily gliding across the sky -- the cheels or black kites. It felt like a classic dystopic picture postcard of the city and the birds in this gray expanse."

The first of a fascinating two-part interview:


IMAGE: Mohammad Saud, Director Shaunak Sen, Nadeem Shehzad and Salik Rehman at the photocall for All That Breathes at Cannes. Photographs: John Phillips/Getty Images

Shaunak, what is the starting point for making a documentary in India?

I started with DocedgeKolkata, a rare platform where a lot of people who want to springboard nonfiction projects come together.

It's probably the only institution or platform in India that helps nonfiction film-makers.

Any film in recent years that you would know -- from Katiyabaaz, An Insignificant Man, Writing with Fire and my previous film -- were actually incubated or pitched at that platform.

You have a few days of mentorship where people from all across the world come and hold lab sessions.

Then, you pitch in front of a roster of different kinds of decision-makers.

It could be broadcasters, distributors, sales agents or producers.

When did you pitch All That Breathes project?

I pitched in 2020.

This film took about two and a half, almost three years to complete, but it was not a marathon sort of a cycle.

In the middle, we had the pandemic.

Plus, I was finishing my PhD.

I was asking more in terms of when you pitched it to Docedge, what was the narrative, the thread that you had developed and how did it evolve?

I started off with the express intention of making something with birds as the focal point, and these two brothers as the emotional anchor of the film. Everything else were layers that were added.

In terms of Docedge, what we pitched was fairly close to what we have now.

The starting point for a project like this was an ineffable glow at the back of your head before you have characters, before you even have themes.

You have this visual texture or a feeling about the experience of living in Delhi in recent years, which has largely a sensorium of grayness.

Your lives are constantly laminated by this kind of gray, monotone haze, like the environment seems to be slowly becoming hostile.

You feel like there's something that is going foundationally wrong.

Wherever I would drive, I would look up during traffic lights, and I would see these tiny dots, lazily gliding across the sky -- the cheels or black kites.

It felt like a classic dystopic picture postcard of the city and the birds in this gray expanse.

How it began was, I was doing a visiting studentship at Cambridge University in the department of human geography. I would have long adda (chatting) sessions with my friend Maan Barua, who teaches there.

We would look at the humans not being the absolute reference point for any mode of analysis and look at the world where you shift the analysis to non-human lives.

We were especially thinking about the city, where different kinds of non-human lives are constantly jostling cheek by jowl, influencing, adjusting and reacting to the city.

So our team started looking for people who had a profound relationship with the skies and birds in general.

That's when we chanced upon the work of the brothers, which have been covered a bit in the media.

Once I went to see them, I realised that that basement is so incredibly cinematic.

It is a decrepit, derelict, basement with a kind of industrial decay and heavy metal cutting machines. On the side, you see these magisterial birds being treated and so vulnerable.

There is a salient bipolarity to that space, that I found riveting in terms of it being cinematic.

Even then I didn't know what the film would be. The only thing I was certain was, I didn't only want to make a straightforward, sweet film about nice people doing nice things.

IMAGE: Salik Rehman in All That Breathes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shaunak Sen's Team

Also not a straightforward film about the environment of Delhi?

I was interested in different layers.

The film has three main pillars.

There's the lives of the brothers, which is the emotional scaffolding of the film that anchors you.

Then there are the long durational shots of non-human life in the city.

I liked the idea that the film should include contemplation of something bigger of life itself and the city.

The idea was to deploy a poetic, lyrical grammar, to excavate the inner lives of the brothers' minds.

Essentially, it's also a love story, about two brothers who fall in love with a bird species. And that hypnotic, ravenous kind of love where the kite emerges as a wondrous, otherworldly, gloriously, almost alien sort of thing was very interesting.

When the film started, a lot of my literary influences were books on people getting into extremely intense relationships with birds including The Peregrine by J A Baker and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

The meshwork of the film developed with these strands: The brothers' lives, where we wanted to show the almost surreal, daily life of this house, while also get the emotional complexities of the brothers' relationship, which is actually symptomatic of a larger malaise of the city and the ecology itself; and then having front row seats to something almost apocalyptic.

Then there was also the slowly developing social sense of turmoil or churning in the streets outside.

But I didn't want to frontally encounter it because it is important in a disciplined way, to train your gaze at the main characters.

We were interested in this idea of the leak, where every time one of them goes to the balcony, the outside world sort of hemorrhages in.

The film has a relationship between the foreground and the background.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/