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All That Breathes Review: Finding Exquisite Beauty in Urban ‘Low Life’

December 2, 2023 | By

All That Breathes is not a political film, but it is set against the political backdrop of the time. Subha Das Mollick reviews the layered film that narrowly missed the Oscars.

All That Breathes 2022

A still from All That Breathes (2022)

This review comes long after All That Breathes won accolades at prestigious festivals all around the world and the director Shaunak Sen’s interviews went viral in social media. The review attempts to rekindle viewers’ interest in a film that deserves a long afterlife because of its layered, multi stranded narrative that unfolds on the fringes of the capital city and its unique aesthetics that finds exquisite beauty in urban ‘low life’. The gray and grizzly urban reality captured by a sensitive, observant camera is likely to linger on, in spite of the beautification drives of the city and the dilemma of the protagonists caught in political crossfire is not likely to be resolved soon. So the film will be cherished for a long time even though it narrowly missed the Oscars.

All That Breathes is not a political film, but it is set against the political backdrop of the time. The politics casts its long shadow on the lives of the protagonists who have taken up an ambitious, larger than life mission, in spite of their humble circumstances. The brothers Nadeem and Saud and their cousin Salik do not romanticize their salvaging mission. They go about their job in a very pragmatic, grounded way. Director Saunak’s Sen’s camera observes them from close and captures telling moments laced with humour and empathy. The narrative is pieced together through snatches of conversation between the family members and nuggets of reminiscence of the elder brother Nadeem. The conversations appear casual on first viewing, but on second viewing, one gets the loaded implications. Saunak Sen’s muted aesthetics too become more visible on second viewing. The juxtapositions of contrasting shots become more meaningful and the static camera positions contrasted with long pans and tracks create their own visual rhythm.

All the Breathes begins with a three minutes long ground level track shot revealing hundreds of mice scurrying and squeaking amidst urban filth, against the backdrop of out of focus city lights. Faint traffic noise, mixed with high pitched squeaks of mice lightly float on the sound track. The track ends with a car headlight lighting up the whiskers of a rat and then washing out the frame. The name of the film appears against a white backdrop. It is followed by the sight of a solitary kite gliding in the polluted city sky. Nadeem’s voice says:

Jab baki bird urti hai to unki mehnat dikhti hai
Par cheel tairti hai.
Hum tarpoline ke chhed se dekha karte the – susth, …..

(When other birds fly, the effort shows. But a kite swims.
We used to watch through the hole in the tarpaulin – a lazy dot in the sky)

With that we come back again to the ground level, this time to witness flies balancing themselves on the surface of stagnant water. An urban chawl is reflected in the water. People go about their daily chores upside down. The sound of buzzing flies and bleating goats crossing the street fill the sound track.

Just like the lazily gliding kite, Shaunak Sen takes his own time to set the tone and pace of his film. It alternates between the high and the low, between crawling and soaring, between freedom and captivity, between sublime poetic moments and prosaic everyday reality. The camera is sometimes a fly on the wall observer and sometimes a participant observer. A CCTV camera captures the brothers and cousins playing cricket in the cramped basement. And a camera on gimble makes its way through a cramped lane to follow Salik carrying a stack of cardboard boxes precariously balanced by his slender arms.

We are curious to know what is there in the boxes. Something moves in one of the boxes and it falls. We get more curious. At one point Salik opens the box and takes out an injured kite. We begin to wonder, why a kite that soars high in the sky, was confined in a box. The director is in no hurry to give us an answer. While Saud nurses the injured kite, Salik starts a conversation about the possibility of Pakistan starting a nuclear war. Saud says that the kites will have corpses to feast on. Salik reminds him that the birds too will suffer the radiation. The camera listens intently from close. The camera is also there to witness a kite sweeping down and snatching off Salik’s specs when he is feeding them with pieces of meat on the terrace.

They say that in a documentary film God is the director. But if the director is in sync with his subjects, the camera ceases to be obtrusive and God makes sure that telling moments are captured by the camera.

Nadeem informs us that feeding meat to kites is a means of attaining salvation. And kites have an insatiable hunger for meat. With these words, for the first time in the film, music fills the sound track. As a kite soars high in the sky, a serene music underlines its soaring spirit. The sky gets filled with criss crossing kites.  Nadeem reminisces the day when the first kite was brought home. The nearby bird hospital refused to admit the injured bird because kites are non-vegetarian birds. So the brothers brought it home and nursed it to recovery. That was the beginning. Today they have 170 kites at home at various stages of recovery. They go all out to retrieve an injured kite and bring it home. They even brave the cold weather to swim across a lake and rescue an injured kite that would otherwise have been devoured by jackals if left in the open.

All That Breathes (2022)

A scene in All That Breathes (2022)

Not all kites rescued by the brothers survive. One day Salik empties a box full of dead kites and Saud digs a grave to bury them. One day while praying at the graveyard, Saud narrates how love for animals was instilled in the brothers by their mother, who told them stories of the cat saint, the shrine of vultures, of spirits appearing as snakes and insects.

As if inspired by these stories, Shaunak Sen’s camera lovingly captures pigs snorting in the filth, a solitary frog lit up by the car headlight, a solitary long legged bird standing on the froth floating over the polluted river Yamuna, a centipede swimming in a tiny pool of water over a discarded plastic bag, an owl sticking its head through a crevice as shaliks hop happily on the ledge. All the animals in the urban ecosystem take on mythical dimensions of the fables that Saud and Nadeem grew up on.

Nadeem is temperamentally different from Saud. He is more ambitious and has varied interests. He succeeds in getting foreign funding for their project. The brothers celebrate the news of the funding coming through by eating ‘softy’ ice cream cones and planning ‘what next’. They plan to build a kite hospital on the terrace. But the outer world beckons Nadeem. He plans to go abroad to get higher training in veterinary science. Saud does not like this decision of his elder brother. At one point, the two brothers get into bickering. Later Saud says that his quarrels with his brother are neither over money, nor on ego. These are manifestations of a greater cosmic design, symptoms that the grand design is going haywire.

The air over Delhi gets foggier, both physically and politically. More kites drop from the sky due to increased levels of pollution. The city burns due to crossfire of communal violence. The news reporter on TV announces “Delhi has turned into a war zone”. A video captured on mobile phone shows somebody atop a spire of a mosque pulling down the Islamic symbol of crescent moon and star. Images of plundered homes, restaurants, streets follow.

A slow track reveals the kites in close up – their paws, their yellow tipped beaks and glowing eyes. Nadeem’s voice laments that this time the communal violence has taken on a dimension of ethnic cleansing. Humans are being compared with termites and rats. The glowing eyes of the kites appear as a counterpoint to Nadeem’s dispassionate voice.

But life goes on and the brand new kite hospital comes up on the terrace. One by one the kites are brought up from the basement all 172 of them. A brand new signboard WILDLIFE RESCUE is put up at the entrance. It is a new beginning in the midst of chaos.

All That Breathes ends with a three minutes long track. End credits appear against the backdrop of kites perched on treetops. Delimited between the two tracks is a film that tells the story of all that breathes in the polluted urban wasteland of the nation’s capital and the story of three brothers engaged in a unique rescue mission. Kites falling from the sky give them a purpose in life.  Recurring motifs of landfills, dungeon heaps and stagnant water set the backdrop and punctuate their narrative.

The penetrating gaze of the camera breaks through the surface reality and touches the inner lives of the characters. The long takes that linger long after the action is over, invite us to read the mind of the character. The sound track, punctuated sparsely with music, heaves with the sounds of animals and birds, insects and worms that learn to survive in the troubled city. In Saud’s words, “We should not differentiate between all the breathes”.

(Pictures are courtesy IMDb)

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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