A story from India about humans, birds, and the environment

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A story from India about humans, birds, and the environment

The documentary film, All that breathes, is a beautiful story about India’s climate and political problems. Husna Ara writes.


One of the brothers with a bird, a kite in their garage.

There is an old garage somewhere in the back streets of north-east Delhi. By day, it is home to a soap business with a small group of workers. The brothers, Nadeem and Saud, own the garage and by night with their friend, Salik, they work hard to heal Delhi’s birds.

The year is 2020. Nadeem and Saud have always lived in Delhi. There are protests in their neighbourhood. This working-class, mostly Muslim area is now the centre of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Citizenship Amendment Act would stop Muslims in South Asia from the right to be refugees in India.

Nadeem’s family speak over a megaphone in the protest and they wonder if they should choose Pakistan or Bangladesh when they escape the country as refugees. To relax and forget about their problems and the protests, the brothers choose animal healing as their hobby to pass the time. They rescue kites from all corners of the city – landfills, reservoirs, local streets. Their do-it-yourself surgery helps the kites back to health.

The city’s kites are important to the environment. They eat snacks from the top of a 15-tonne rubbish heap at one of the world’s biggest landfills. Nadeem says, ‘The city is a stomach. The birds are the microbial gut, they digest what is difficult to digest.’ But India’s use of coal has doubled in the last ten years and the terrible air quality makes the birds ill, and they drop from the sky like flies.

The brothers and their friend work through endless power cuts. In monsoon season, their garage is flooded with sewage water. Their Wildlife Rescue is struggling against India’s environmental problems. With badly smelling drinking water, terrible air quality, and the overflow of rubbish in cities, conditions around the garage workshop are very bad.

If the poor health of birds is like the health of humans, All that breathes is a clear warning for the future of global health. But this wonderful film is gentle and slow-moving, with owls, kites, birds, and pigs as Nadeem talks about the future of his city.

Shaunak Sen is the documentary film’s director and in a slow and patient way he gives us an idea of India’s political problems. The wildlife rescuers talk about their attraction to bird healing, but there are small moments of fear of the anti-Muslim violence behind their everyday lives during the Delhi riots of 2020. The storytelling is unusually slow for a film today, but it gives us a feeling for how social and environmental devastation run together.

There are moments of hope and despair but the characters think about their future. For example, there is the question and possibility of them dying young. On bad days, Nadeem thinks about the possibilities for Delhi’s wildlife and human life – both are suffering. On other days, he talks about the way he sees the world. For Nadeem, ‘you don’t care for people because you share a country, identity, or religion with them. Life itself is a family working together. It is a community of air.’



(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)