Biweekly Binge: Kite Flies Like an Arrow
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's All That Breathes
Dogs and crickets. Rats and centipedes. Ants and lizards. Crows and fishes. Tortoises and cows. Mosquitoes and owls. Squirrels and frogs. Kites. All kinds of fauna appear in Shaunak Sen’s new film All That Breathes, winner of Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary. Sen wields lifeforms like a piece of performance art, his lens (Ben Bernard as Director of Photography and Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi the cinematographers) captures them in media res, not in cinema but lifecycle, caught at their most guileless moment. The camera looks up at the Delhi sky and ambles to the right with a gradual decrease in altitude till, in a single take, it wafts in the essence of a landfill occupied by garbage and rodents, panning across the dump till it is too close to them for our comfort. Two lizards hunt, their shadows ahead of them and a man bats away mosquitoes with an electric bat. Impoverished cows walk the streets at dawn and centipedes escape over leaves as the water level shrinks. But Sen’s chosen subjects are the kites of Delhi.
This is a film about kites and three men (two brothers and an enthusiastic, inquisitive young man) who volunteer and care for them in the skies and roofs of the capital. Self-taught and self-trained, Nadeem, Saud, and Salik work in the basement of their home where Salik brings boxes of injured kites for Saud to treat. They fix the birds, cage them till recovery and release the birds back into the sky. The film as the title suggests extends to the living and breathing biosphere. There is talk of evolution and inherent cruelty in nature. There are even class differences between rural kites and city kites. Delhi, a ballooning box of the most polluted air in the world, is an obvious candidate for conversation. Salik—ever the asker of necessary, uncomfortable questions—wonders how much garbage the kites consume, and Nadeem arrives at a number—15 tons a month, which helps reduce the landfills. “Otherwise, our landfills will reach the skies”, they conclude. All That Breathes is a beautifully shot and masterfully rendered commentary on a system that is unsustainable and in dire need of oxygen.
Kite flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana. That’s a mere modification of the most famous example of syntactic ambiguity but Shaunak Sen’s new film plays on the ambiguity and anonymity in nature and in lifeforms. The film is gentle in the way it places under the limelight that every organism in the evolutionary cycle plays its part. It doesn’t throw down a gauntlet or set the sirens on high alert. But it is not so gentle in establishing that this is a family of Muslim brothers who have a tremendous amount of empathy for both fellow human beings and, arguably more so for the fauna and health of Delhi as a city. They regard themselves as more than just a cog in the wheel of the ecological cycle, citizens who understand personal liberty and collective responsibility, and Sen nudges us towards the juxtaposition of his documentary and the time it was made—at the height of anti-CAA protests in November-December 2019 and the riots targeted against Muslims at the beginning of 2020 just before the Covid pandemic hit the larger world. Sen’s roving eye catches intimate moments between the brothers—they swim across the river to save an injured kite— and between them and the birds. The exchanges within their family are quieter, breaking down profound subjects to their granular details—will they get disenfranchised due to a spelling mistake in a school transcript? What’s the air purifier reading today? “If I die, will the kites eat me too?”, Salik asks. “It’s all flesh to them, what difference does it make?”, Saud replies. All That Breathes uses single shots in gliding rhythms and patterns to both project the beauty and its deterioration in a once-thriving city. The unbroken shots make the brothers’ home—small and claustrophobic—look like a larger space than it is.
The word metabolism is used in the context of the city imagining it to be an organism within and of itself, more like a paraplegic on life support. It superimposes the faces of the birds into the fabric of the city, an injured dying breed. But it survives despite the destruction and the state. It adapts and innovates much like Nadeem who wants to go abroad and study the techniques more elaborately to make their enterprising efforts better. All That Breathes shines a torch on things that we take for granted, those that we deem uninteresting or unconsciously neglect. It underlines the importance of the mundane, in the everyday act of breathing. In their makeshift basement clinic, there is a shot of a television showing footage from the CCTV camera in the next room, Salik playing cricket with the staff. It follows him walking out of the CCTV frame and moving to the right as he enters Sen’s frame. It’s an alluring moment that is light in the context of All That Breathes, a relatively uneventful part of daily life that is recorded in ephemeral footage of CCTV. Only life is ephemeral, lifecycle is perpetual the film says.