‘All that breathes’ and ‘communities of air’


THE power of stories to imagine communities into being is a source of endless fascination. Scholars of literature and culture, psychology and polity, have all been absorbed by questions of narratives and discourses, in the attempt to understand how stories shape us as much as we shape them, how they consume us as much as we are consumed by them. The politician’s speech, the history textbook, the popular film: each of these serves to draw boundaries, create a sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’, include some and exclude many, and reinforce old hierarchies or erect new ones. If this is the power of hegemonic narratives, then it stands to reason that resistance to them will also need to take the form of stories and chronicles that challenge the limiting visions of the past, present, and future. But what form can such narratives assume? What alternative kinds of communities can be imagined into being by the stories that we tell ourselves and one another?

Zindagi khud ek tarah ki rishtedaari hai. Hum sab hawaa ke biraadari hai.’ Life itself is a kind of kinship. We are all a community of air. These are the words of one of the key characters of Shaunak Sen’s unusual documentary All That Breathes (2022). The film tracks three men, brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad and their associate Salik Rehman – not professional eco-critics or philosophers, but wildlife rescuers who have made it their life’s mission to rescue and tend to injured kites falling from the sky over a dangerously polluted Delhi.

As we follow them through their single-minded pursuit, we are compelled to ask ourselves: why do they do what they do? What explains swimming across a river to rescue a fallen bird who couldn’t survive the night on its own? What does it feel like to be a person whose first thought at noting the alarming AQI of the city is concern not for his own child, but for the birds? Communities of air: what could that possibly mean? The rescuers seem isolated in a world of their own, as they are shown absorbed in their tasks at their dark and damp, makeshift garage clinic. But they are also surrounded by social unrest and calls for resistance. As they step out into the balcony or terrace, we can hear sounds of speeches and slogans from the recent CAA-NRC protests drift in from the background and punctuate the rhythm of their daily routines. But neither the rescuers nor the film seems to take an active interest in this. Indeed, the louder the protests grow, the more the men seem to turn away from it; the closer communal violence comes to their neighbourhood, the more they seem engrossed in the urgency of their rescue mission.

The explicitly political uproar in their surroundings remains mostly out of focus, a peripheral concern that fills up the ‘background’ tangentially and lets us eavesdrop on that which we never directly see. The rescuers are not indifferent to these anxieties nor unmoved by the protests – there is awkward humour in a conversation around documents, identity, and displacement, and one of them actively encourages his wife to participate in a protest sit-in while himself declining to join in – yet, there is a deliberate turning away from the intensity of the social and political disturbance. What are we to make of this reluctance? Does it make them apolitical?

Far from it. All three central human characters in the film show us different ways of thinking, feeling, looking, and being, that expand our understanding of both, what it means to be human and what being ‘political’ might entail. The young and earnest Salik is constantly curious about the birds and persistent in his attempts to understand their behaviour. Placed outside the familial matrix of the brothers and their families and tactfully distant from their occasional friction, Salik is both obliquely positioned as an apprentice and centrally located at the film’s emotional core. He speculates upon whether these birds would feast on dead human flesh in the event of a nuclear explosion; he wonders what would happen to landfills if the birds did not consume human refuse; he ponders over why a bird flew away with his spectacles, without any bitterness.


All That Breathes, dir. Shaunak Sen, HBO Documentary Films, 2022


All That Breathes, dir. Shaunak Sen, HBO Documentary Films, 2022

With each such question, Salik displays a lively, unsentimental interest in the kites and an awe at the mystery of human-non-human relationships that reveals the limits of the unthinking animal worship driving much of contemporary majoritarian imagination. The scene where he looks intimately into the eyes of a bird perched before him on the table, while the bird holds his gaze, in a sense captures the soul of the film and understandably became its poster image. Is it not a truly meaningful pursuit, this attempt to understand an ‘other’ – a person, a bird, an animal?

For Saud, however, with all his experience and wisdom, the attempt to understand the non-human is in the end, futile. He stands convinced that no matter how much time one spends with any animal, however much one cares for it, one can never truly understand it. An unbreachable space of mystery remains in this bond, and makes it no less compelling for that. The point then, is not to make this other over in one’s own image, but to recognise and respect both likeness (bathing a bird is like bathing a child) and difference (a kite’s appetite is indiscriminate).


For most of the film, we don’t hear Saud explicitly condemn communal violence, but we see how his religion has shaped him, how he draws inspiration from its beliefs. Religion taught Saud that feeding these birds was a virtue, religious stories and his Ammis fables taught him to imagine a more accommodating, ‘mixed world’ with trees, fungi, animals, humans, and the supernatural – different from the segregated world we have come to inhabit today. We see this ‘mixing’ once again when Saud voices his wish to instruct his son to bury him along with his mother’s cancer-shed hair and the feathers of the last bird he rescued, bringing together human and bird, storyteller and character, sickness and cure, life and death. His belief that humans are the loneliest species is a poignant reminder of that lost world and his fear/fantasy that one day his heart would give up on him and burst open with kites flying out of it, is another enigmatic reimagination of both humanity and death.


Nadeem, on the other hand, is the brother who always stays a little aloof. The practical one, the one who takes care of all the paperwork and logistics, who is reluctant to get into the water for a bird, who feels all his labour is invisible, who feels trapped in his circumstances and wants to break away, however temporarily. But, who also appreciates his brother’s intimate attachment with the birds, who sees the exhaustion and panic on Salik’s face and swims out to help him bring an injured bird ashore, who, despite his half-articulated longing to do more with his life than devoting all of it to wildlife rescue, nevertheless perseveres with grant applications till they eventually get to build the bird clinic of their dreams.

Both brothers feel trapped in their own ways; fittingly, then, their new hospital sports an open cage and the rescuers watch in delight as their first avian patient flies away. The brothers and Salik complement and ground one another, working in amiable harmony with the occasional abrasion. Each seems to understand and respect that the other is different in aspirations and temperament, even as they are united in a common cause. And when Saud gestures towards the sky and explains that the tensions with his brother are not petty but a symptom of what’s happening ‘up there’, he indicates a deep understanding of microcosms and macrocosms and the intricate intertwining of all life.

In between narrating the story of a modest garage clinic devoted to the care of birds, the film’s camera also frequently zooms out and casts its gaze upwards and downwards – to the perennially grey sky above and its reflection in the pools of water below. The brothers are aware that their existence and their efforts are tiny in comparison to the expanse of the world and the gravity of its crises – it’s like putting a band aid on a gaping wound, as one of them says. Nevertheless, this awareness never lulls them into inaction. Through their gaze, we begin to see the story of a wider eco-system, in transformation.

In their words, the city emerges as a living, breathing being with an altered metabolism, its landfills are its stomach and the kites its microbiomes that ensure proper digestion. Evolutionary adjustments are demanded of all creatures, big and small, such that everyone learns to live and survive together in the city – sab ek saath, ek sheher mein. Each is a rightful inhabitant of the city but it is human society that has failed to keep its side of the bargain. At the same time, there’s also a wistful longing for earlier times. When the religious maxim about feeding birds being a virtue (since birds ‘eat’ away human difficulties) is later echoed in the sight of birds hovering over landfills, waiting to feed on human waste, we are compelled to think of the everyday folk wisdom that is fast receding today.


All That Breathes, dir. Shaunak Sen, HBO Documentary Films, 2022


Besides birds, there are many other creatures that populate the film. We see and hear rats squeaking, flies buzzing, pigs squealing, goats bleating, horses neighing, a frog croaking, ants crawling, cows chewing, dogs lazing, mosquito larvae swimming, and a snail inching along. In these instances, the camera attentively draws them into the foreground and pushes the human actors into the background. Here too, we witness the rescuers’ vision – and the film’s – of an expansive canvas of the living and the breathing, with an awareness of food chains, harmonious interdependence, and a graceful equilibrium in nature. A world where it is possible for two teenage bodybuilders to turn their attention from their own bodies to the anatomy of birds, such that creatures that once looked like dangerous reptiles from another planet, become the object of all-consuming devotion.



And this devotion, through their gaze, appears not to be selfless. Not just in utilitarian terms, but in a deeper, spiritual sense that is conveyed through the intriguing claim that the birds have saved the rescuers more than they have saved the birds. In one instance, Salik is travelling in an auto when he gets a call from his mother, asking after his whereabouts, given the incidents of communal violence in parts of the city. After reassuring her about his safety and promising to be back on time, he opens a video on his phone with sounds of shrieks and yells, watches it briefly, and puts it away. After a beat, he looks at his breast pocket, reaches into it, and seems to magically produce a small, squeaking squirrel that he lays on his palm and caresses for a while. Then, as if reassured by the sight, just as naturally, he eases it back into the pocket and the creature promptly curls up again, next to his heart.

This, to me, was the most moving meditation in the film. It leaves us with the impression that in times when grand narratives of hate and violence threaten to swallow up existence and reduce humans into mobs or pests, the antidote may lie in the politics of attention and compassion towards the smallest and most helpless of creatures. When we hear one of the rescuers reflect on how the current wave of communalism in the nation dehumanises Muslims as pests and transforms the discourse into one of speciesism and hygiene, their rescue efforts assume a different  significance. What could be a more powerful response, than to offer dignity and love in the face of humiliation and hatred?

If earlier in the film, we find it remarkable that the brothers go about their regular business as the world around them goes up in flames, then by the end of the film, we feel somewhat closer to their amazement at the fact that thousands of birds plummet from the sky and people carry on with their business as usual. Which reality seems more real? Which seems more important, urgent? Are they two different realities at all? As slogans for peace, non-violence, empathy, and unity rend the air, we are compelled to wonder if these principles only apply to the human world.


All That Breathes, dir. Shaunak Sen, HBO Documentary Films, 2022


Could a collective response to violence and cruelty move beyond resistance to that particular moment or agent of violence or even its target? Public protests in recent times have been distinguished by the way in which they displayed a spontaneous and organic notion of community that believed as much in pushing back against hatred, as in forming bonds – through music, art, food, stories. Then can we not read the mission of these wildlife rescuers as an even more comprehensive interpretation of that notion of community – one that ventures so far as to include all that breathes? ‘Jo jo cheezein saans leti hain, unmein koi farq nahi dikhni chahiye. There should be no discrimination among all that breathes.



By the end of the film, the rescue mission has come to convey a range of meanings. Today, when ‘being political’ demands loud proclamations of one’s ideologies and loyalties, these men demonstrate the value of a quiet, determined politics of the everyday. In times that seek to split the world into binaries and narrow down our sense of self to the most immediate and ‘relevant’, the rescuers show us what an expansive sense of the self could look like, and call for a reorientation of our gazes. Together, they  show us that there is always scope for the religious, the spiritual, the emotional, and the poetic, in meaningful responses to the urgent crises of our times. These human patrols of birds in distress illustrate alternative ways of being human, when that very humanity is most under threat.

The film presses upon us the precious value of bonds that we must retrieve, stories that we must tell and listen to, and communities we must re-form. Cheezon ki parvah isliye nahi kee jati kyunki unka desh, ya mazhab, ya politics aap jaisi hai. Zindagi khud ek tarah ki rishtedaari hai. Hum sab hawaa ke biraadari hai. Isliye hum pakshiyon ko chhod nahi sakte.’ You don’t care for things because they share your nation, religion, or politics. Life itself is a kind of kinship. We’re all a community of air. That’s why we cannot abandon the birds.

As the end credits scroll sideways on the screen, we see a parliament of fowls perched on the branches of trees in a forest, with the names of the human collaborators of the film hanging from its branches. The social and the ecological are inextricably intertwined. The tree of life connects us all. As does the very air that we breathe. To understand this is to embrace life itself; we ignore this fundamental truth at our own peril.