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Shaunak Sen Interview: The making of a dystopic fairytale- Cinema express

Shaunak Sen Interview: The making of a dystopic fairytale

Shaunak Sen shares finer details, the languid pans and tilts, the no-cuts approach and the grammar that evolved alongside the making of his Oscar-nominated documentary, All The Breathes

Published: 15th February 2023

Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathes had its world premiere on January 22, 2022, at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. Over a year since then, it has emerged, deservedly so, as the most celebrated among the recent Indian films. The most awarded documentary of the year, its rich haul of international recognitions includes the L’Œil d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, best feature, director and editing prizes at the International Documentary Association Awards 2022 and the best documentary trophy at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. 

It has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 95th Academy Awards. A strong contender in one of the toughest categories at the Oscars this year, it faces challenges from the likes of Laura Poitras’ Venice Golden Lion winner All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Daniel Roher’s Sundance Audience and Festival Favourite awards winner Navalny, Simon Lereng Vilmon’s A House Made of Splinters that bagged the best director award at Sundance and Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love that walked away with the editing award at Sundance. 

About brothers, Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, their assistant Salik Rehman and their lifelong commitment to rescuing and saving the injured kites, All That Breathes is underlined with a sense of urgency when it comes to the issue of the ecological devastation that it is centred on. “The epistemic wallpaper of our lives” is how Sen puts it. But the film is just as persuasive with its inventive form, distinct visual flair, meditative frames, poetic and emotionally rich narration, and the mellow portrayal of the compelling ties that bind the humans and the birds. 

Hawa ki baradari” is how the brothers philosophically describe the interconnectedness between the human and non-human life forms, the kinship that comes from breathing the same air. Amid the clouds of bleakness smothering the present, it’s the philanthropy and compassion for the sentient that offers the silver linings of hope and healing for the future.

In an expansive conversation with Namrata Joshi, Sen went into the finer details, the languid pans and tilts, the no-cuts approach and the grammar that evolved alongside the making of the film that he describes as a “dystopic fairytale”.


The story of Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who rescue injured kites, had been documented in some news stories. What was it that intrigued you to think of making a film about them? What was the approach that you decided to take for the subject?

Even before I had a sense of how the brothers would be the primary vectors of the story, I had a vague intuition or a sense of the visual texture or feeling of the film. When a film first comes to you it's like this kind of abstract, hazy glow at the back of your head. At least for me, it’s the texture I want to evoke more than the story. 

Growing up in Delhi, you're very aware of the general, all-round texture of greyness. The hazy sky, the sun as the diffused blot, the bad air. And this general sense that something that is hostile to you is dominating your entire life. And then every time you look up, you'll always see these slow, gliding dots. The kites. One of the first things I remember telling my producer partner, Aman Mann, was that I was interested in making this film where the audience comes out of the theatre and looks up at the sky. I wanted it to have some kind of dystopic fairytale-like feel; it has an aura or charm but is eventually kind of dark. So, we started looking for people who had a deep, profound relationship with either the sky or the birds. 

When I met the brothers, [I found] that they work in this tiny, derelict, very industrially decayed kind of a basement. On the one side, there are the heavy metal cutting machines and the whirring, metallic sounds. On the other side, I found these magisterial yet vulnerable birds. There's something inherently cinematic about this kind of duality. They are doing such phenomenally important work in this tiny, stifling, claustrophobic basement. It was interesting to shuttle between this kind of compressed space and the decompression of the city. 
Generally, I was also interested in [doing] something about the non-human life in the city, the ecology. When we say wilderness or animal life or nature, we think of something which is far away, literally in the forests. But the city, as a space, is also a very strong evolutionary and behavioral imperative for non-human life. Science has been talking about how animals are constantly adjusting, reacting, and improvising. 

Over time, as the film developed, I figured there will be three parts to it, the brothers will be the emotional core, there'll be stuff that will give a durational experience of the non-human life in the city and there will be this kind of poetic, lyrical style that invokes the inner life of mind.

What went into the scripting and shooting of the film?

It came up organically. We had hours and hours and hours of interviews from over two and a half years of shooting. I had a diary full of very clever, acute and often philosophically intense things that the brothers would share through the comments, which we sharpened over time. We then extracted the best bits out of it. 

My previous film Cities of Sleep was more classically observational, verite kind, shot with handheld camera. This was far more controlled, curated, languid, fluid, aestheticized. 

Was this process of curating reality more satisfying or more challenging?

I don't know if satisfying would be a correct comparative paradigm. Let me put it this way—you become the filmmaker who can make this film through the making of the film. Whatever comes intuitively or organically to you at the time you're making it, feels satisfactory. I would like to believe that All That Breathes is a far more mature understanding of time and space, editing rhythm and the camera. But I was a different person back then and Cities of Sleep was an intuitive expression of who I was then. 

This film’s aspirations are different. I wanted it to be far bigger in scope, the resources were way more than the previous film. What happens in the actions and everyday life of the brothers is cyclical. The birds are brought in these boxes to the basement and then taken to the enclosures on the terrace. It allowed me the liberty to have different shots at it. So, in a way, this film is far more zoomed out. It desires to be more contemplative and poetic and all of that. In that sense, I suppose I couldn't have pulled off this grammar earlier. 

Also, my collaborators here were really accomplished, people. For camera, I had Ben Bernhard, the German director of photography who has shot some of Viktor Kossakovsky’s films, Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi. I had Charlotte Munch Bengtsen who edited The Act of Killing, The Truffle Hunters and several other well-known documentaries. Vedant Joshi, the co-editor, was on the edit team for Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple

Both your films are quintessentially Delhi. You are a Delhi boy, born and raised here... 

As much as a Bengali can become an out-and-out Delhi person.

I said that because in both your films I see a certain kind Delhi which may not be represented otherwise in cinema, which envelopes us all the time but is still somewhere in the margins of our consciousness...

As a directorial team, we are all very locally, and culturally embedded. We were brought up here. There is a deep intimacy with different kinds of vernacular, colloquial cultures. Therefore, the things that we can find out in Delhi, we won't have that facility easily in other cities. Also the team is very interested in the notion of cities as such, how one disassembles the city through different lenses. If Cities of Sleep looked at the city through the lens of sleep and horizontal imagination, this was centred on the vertical. Delhi through the lens of the birds and the sky. If you are keen on focusing on one particular aspect, any kind of megapolis will start illuminating itself in that different light. Noone sets out [on it] unless it's an express intention of the project. Ours was not like ‘let us make a city film’. There were a clutch of concepts and ideas which included the relation between human and non-human world, skies, and birds and all that sort of thing. I get interested in this broader field of concepts. Then, very often it happens that while researching it, you encounter characters who embody some of that, the felt experience of real life and then their specific, particular life takes on a kind of blunt force, the details of which completely override the film except that underneath it still is the scaffolding of the idea that you began with. In the interplay between the idea and specificity of people's lives is the zone that is super interesting for me.

There is the sky and kites in the film but a lot happening on ground. The way you start with the mice. There are stray dogs, pigs, mongooses, lizards, and crows. The whole eco-system of scavenging and how it sustains life... 

In the first few shots, if you look at the images and break those down, the camera immerses you in this kind of subterranean world, almost the substrata of the city, teeming with rats. After that you see a lone single kite soaring in the sky beautifully, after which you see a puddle on the road with a pack of mosquitoes who are both terrestrial and in the air. This sense of different cuts of straight lines above the ground was something that I was vaguely interested in, not in a very frontal manner. 

I was very interested in what has been referred to as the theory of more than human turn. It is basically a kind of approach and it's big within human geography, where the human is not the absolute central reference point of analysis or entry into the world. You think of the world through these different nodes of entanglements and through these non-human lives. I have had these long chats with a friend and collaborator Maan Barua; it’s his field. It really activated the thought in my head about how to translate this into cinema. I had a hunch that way more than writing or music or any other art form, cinema can reveal these kinds of durational encounters that happen in a city better. So, for instance, when you see a slow, languid pan of a turtle going through garbage and then looking at the traffic above, what you're seeing is a kind of encounter or collision between two different temporalities. Our shorthand for it was that we wanted something that would show life writ large on the canvas of the city, different states of life jostling cheek by jowl. Eventually, by the by, we developed a grammar to tell it. We developed these slow, languid pans, or tilts down where you reveal the duality or three-ness of the world. Over time, through the shoot, what we realized was very important to the vocabulary of filming was that we should not cut the shots. So, none of these shots have any cuts. They are like single units unto themselves. Like the story that happens within one single shot where you see different elements and then it reveals another part of it within that one shot. That became a structuring principle through the course of the film. During the editing it developed and blossomed further. 

We even evolved and developed the idea for shooting the human protagonists. Usually, you hand hold [the camera] and follow life as it unfolds in front of you. But in the confined space you can use two or three tripods and put a slider on them and keep languidly moving. 

Research, writing, shooting, editing, all of this must have taken quite a while...
Three years and we were shooting for a good two and a half years and editing and shooting simultaneously in Delhi with Vedant on the base edit. And then we were editing with Charlotte for about four and a half months. 

Animals are not easy to shoot. They are monumentally indifferent to your design. We were also certain that we didn't want to do the more conventional wildlife documentary. We also didn't have the skills to do it. You can say that you want to shoot the mice and snails and all of that. But to find them and then shoot them is really another matter altogether. So, it meant just relentlessly turning up at places every day. 

Not just the visuals, there are the words, the language, voices, the conversations, the storytelling... The narration is lovely and comforting even while talking about a searing reality. There is a humane way to it and the visual languidness is also reflected in the aural aspect of the film. Tell me a bit more about it.

Sometimes there is this over romanticized, bleeding-heart sentimentality about environmentalism, that I don't have a lot of patience for. What drew me to the brothers was that they have a wry, unsentimental way of soldiering every day while witnessing ecological devastation at a scale that is unimaginable for most of us. They have a front row seat to it; they see it every day and still carry on. There's something about their philosophical and ethical position itself. They are also very soft-spoken and quiet people. So, to excavate and open that was bound to take a while. 

I was sure from the beginning that I didn't want to make a film about nice people doing nice things. The idea was to mine as much as we could of their emotional turmoil and in very many ways their own relationship felt symptomatic of a larger malaise. I was interested in mining those deeper things in the deeper recesses. At the same time the idea was to use the non-human life in the city to communicate the gut feeling about what you were seeing on a broader, zoomed out, cosmological register. 

You have all kinds of dramaturgical arcs underwriting the narrative propulsion of the film but at the same time you can communicate with these kinds of long elliptical things in the middle. They follow the emotional logic of the story, even if they feel like they are interrupting the narrative thrust. And that was something that developed very organically on the edit.

The aspect of pollution—there is talk about the smelly water, about a child being unwell—you have integrated as a part of life itself... 

At no point did we ever think that we were making a film on pollution. We were very sure about what we were not going to do. Only later did we discover what the film was about. It slowly began to emerge that these are the broader coordinates that the film ought to map and what to steer clear of. Anyway, you know this kind of ecological stuff that you're talking about, around Delhi, very often is the epistemic wallpaper of our lives. The kind of banal, trivial ways in which emerging environmental consciousness articulates itself every day. It’s not an exception. It’s in the fabric of every day. 

You seem to have got a lot of access to the brothers and their families. There is a certain intimacy yet a distance with which you frame and film them. How did you negotiate that?

I think the first month of the shoot of most documentaries, at least for us, is less about the visual object or what the themes are. The main labour is earning trust and figuring out areas where you can go and how conversations can be staged actively. 

The camera is a very obtrusive presence in the beginning, so most of the material is unusable anyway. It's only when they get really bored of you and they yawn in front of the camera [that it begins to work]. At first, they weren’t sure what it meant, they were expecting sit-down interviews etc. And then they realized that we were just hanging around, shooting everything in their lives. We had a code word, I would come in and say “ab hum deewar hain (now we are the wall)”. They’d then ignore us and go about their day. Slowly the circumference of what is ok to shoot grows because they also start trusting you and deep friendships develop. At this point, they are like family members, and we are family members to them. There were personal tragedies in my life [father’s death]. They came and attended the funeral service. You get embedded in each other's lives. This kind of shooting leads to a very special kind of density of friendship and intensity which waxes and wanes through the course of the film and after and you must trust in the here and now of where you are with the person.

There are the anti-CAA/NRC protests in the background...

We were absolutely certain that this was not a project that was geared in any way to be a political snapshot of the country. There is a lot of respect for people who are making that kind of cinema, but this project was not it. It became a question of discipline, whether to point the camera away or stick to them. The grammar emerged for us from the idea of the leak, that the outer world and its layers leak in. There is some kind of unrest, gathering or churning. You get a weak sense that there's something going wrong, and it could possibly feel a bit ominous. It’s like different layers of the world hemorrhaging and it’s the form we wanted to stick to. It is never frontally encountered, and we only see it from a distance because even though the brothers themselves are very aware, they are not political. What they are interested in is the cosmological politics, of the relationship between man and the sky or the humans and the birds. They’re like if we go to protest, who’ll take care of the birds? It’s about the problem one decides to attend to that very often configures one’s political realm and, for them, the political is often the expressions of ecology and environment and so on and how that interfaces with other forms of things that demand attention. It’s this kind of tangential thing, and I really prefer it in this embedded form. 

But the idea of endangered birds and survival could have a larger resonance, the environmental degradation and ecological devastation could have political parallels as well...

These are metaphorical underpinnings open to the audience. But you know when you are shooting, you don't shoot for the metaphor, right? Even during the first few stages of the edit, you don't do that; you just stick to the spine of the story and its emotional thrust. You don't encounter anything directly political in any way. It’s about the environment and the atmosphere. Most people outside will not have a sense of what the specifics are. That’s the baseline and the ambition of it. 

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