Birds fall to Earth from Delhi's toxic skies. Two brothers are there to save them
Shaunak Sen was stuck in a traffic jam one evening in 2018 when he looked up at the hazy, polluted skies of Delhi and saw dozens of raptors, birds with brown feathers, gracefully circling overhead. Then, one bird just dropped to the ground in mid-flight.
"After I went back home, I had to Google it," Sen says. "What happens to birds that fall out of the sky in Delhi?" The answer led him to two Muslim brothers — Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud — who would soon become the subjects of his award-winning documentary, All That Breathes.
Shot over a period of three years from 2019, the documentary this year won both the Golden Eye Award for top documentary at Cannes and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It tells the story of the brothers' lifelong struggle to save an unusual bird — the meat-eating black kites that have made the smog-ridden Delhi skies their home.
"Once you visit their house and see their tiny, cramped, claustrophobic basement, you realize the constraints they work under and the sheer scale of the problem. Hundreds of these majestic birds, injured and being treated from cardboard boxes in that makeshift basement — it's cinematically riveting. And that's how it all began," Sen says.
"Birds are plummeting from the sky. Delhi is a gaping wound, and we're a tiny Band-Aid on it," says Nadeem, a wildlife rehabilitator and the elder of the brothers. "The scraps from slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants are dumped in Delhi. This, and the huge amounts of garbage that pile up every day, attracts hundreds of these scavenging birds. They come from Russia, the steppes of Afghanistan and Mongolia."
The brothers were particularly drawn to the black kite, Nadeem says, when they found an injured bird as kids but couldn't get treatment for it. In 1995, a bird hospital run by the Jain community nearby turned it away because it was "a non-vegetarian bird," says Saud, the younger brother. Jains, who believe in the tenets of non-violence, are staunch vegetarians, and the hospital didn't have the capacity to provide the birds with their primary diet of meat.
Most people tend to misunderstand raptors, Saud says. They think of them as vicious hunters. But black kites are also scavengers — and are particularly helpful with cleaning the mountains of garbage that pile up in Delhi, he explains.
Throughout the film, the brothers have problems convincing people of the kites' value, and they struggle to find donors to buy meat for the injured raptors. On many days, they buy the meat with their own dwindling funds. They cannot make time for their families because they care for the birds after an impossibly long day at work. Over the years, saving the kites has become a kind of compulsion, Nadeem says.
So what has kept them going?
The sheer joy of seeing the birds take flight again, says Nadeem, possibly because his own attempt to take to the skies was thwarted. "I've always dreamed of being a pilot," he says. The hefty fees at flying schools made that dream impossible. After he graduated, he had to help his family earn money by working with their soap dispenser business.
"I always think, if flying were such a passion for me, then what about these birds who are meant to fly? Now when I let a bird go after healing it and it flies away, I feel pure joy. I call it my payday," he says.
In 2010, the brothers established their non-governmental organization, Wildlife Rescue. Over the last 12 years, they've treated nearly 26,000 injured kites, Nadeem estimates. And though he's never been formally trained in veterinary sciences, he can tell at a glance what's wrong with the bird, and in most cases, he can fix it.
The birds are affected by two long-standing problems caused by humans: one is Delhi's toxic air quality, and the other is far worse — the seemingly innocent activity of flying kites (the kind with strings).
When the skies become a deathtrap
Kites, the ones that humans fly for fun, are particularly vicious. Especially harmful is the manja, a string that is made up of abrasive substances — in some versions, the string is made of fine metal and then coated with powdered glass. These strings allow people to play a kind of game — kite fighting, or cutting the strings of opponents' kites. The activity was meant to be fun, but instead, it's turned deadly. Many birds that are wounded by the manja die.
The brothers treat 800 to 1,000 birds each year that have deep cuts. "And these aren't minor wounds," Nadeem says. "Imagine a human arm cut all the way to the bone and it being exposed — that's how deep it goes into the ... wings."
In 2016, after a manja kite string slit a man's throat as he was riding his bike home, instantly killing him, a law was passed the following year to ban the strings. Flouting the ban could cost a year in prison or a fine equivalent to $1,200.
Despite this, the strings are still widely available in any marketplace and very much in use.
The other enemy of the birds is pollution. Sometimes the brothers receive birds with breathing issues, especially in winter, when pollution spikes. Some recover after a few days of food and rest, while others die quickly.
Residents of Delhi talk about the air quality in the same way that others discuss the weather. "My throat feels like charcoal," a friend of the brothers says in the opening scene of the documentary while inhaling steam from an air purifier. "Has the AQI [air quality index] hit 800 today?" is a common small-talk query. And it was what inspired the director to shoot the documentary in the first place.
"When you live in Delhi, the poor quality of air is palpable and all pervasive. You're constantly aware of the fumes you're breathing in, of how the sky is a dull, grey, hazy expanse," says Sen, who is a resident of Delhi himself. But he says he hadn't really considered its effect on Delhi's wildlife until the day he looked up and saw the kite drop so disturbingly from the sky.
'More than human' interactions
Sen became intrigued with human and non-human interaction, a concept that academics refer to as "more-than-human," during a brief fellowship at Cambridge University in the U.K. This became the overriding theme in All that Breathes. "I was interested in looking at Delhi through a 'more-than-human' lens," he says.
For this reason, one of the remarkable aspects of the documentary — one that viewers can't miss, is how urban cities are often teeming with animal life. This is especially obvious in developing cities, where borders are ever expanding and incessant construction impinges on natural habitats; we coexist with animals without even being aware of their presence. In the documentary, we see several minutes of footage of scurrying mice rummaging through garbage, the slow gait of turtles, pigs in the mud and birds nesting in various parts of the city.
How did they get those shots?
Recce recce recce, says Sen, referring to the process of pre-filming visits to scout a location in order to determine its suitability for shooting. "The idea was to find life at large in the canvas of the city," he says. He was particularly looking to frame shots where human and non-human activity overlaps.
'Boredom is our magic tool'
Filming began in January 2019, and spanned a period of three years. Even though things slowed during the peak of the COVID pandemic, Sen says the break helped him sort through a mountain of footage and to review their progress. "There were times when we shot for weeks together — 20 days at a stretch, and at others, we wouldn't see them for a couple of months. The language of the film evolved slowly," he says. "Boredom is our magic tool. You have to wait until people are bored of your presence and the camera becomes less and less obtrusive," he says. "When they yawn for the first time on camera, you know you're there."
At first, the brothers say that they were very conscious of the camera, but over a period of three years, they learned to ignore it and just be themselves.
Much of the footage was shot during a period of great political unrest. In 2019, people all over India were protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act — a law that would grant eligibility for Indian citizenship to illegal migrants who had entered the country from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before December 2014. However, the act was meant only for people running away from religious persecution — and they had to be either Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. Muslims who were persecuted (like the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for instance), would not be granted the same privileges under the act. Nationwide, many Indians protested because they believed the act was unconstitutional, and the Muslim communities in particular felt it discriminatory.
"It wasn't our intention to make a political story. We aimed for an ecological one," says Sen. "The brothers aren't actively involved in politics, but the city of Delhi was going through a turbulent period [at the time of shooting]. Even then, they soldiered on and didn't engage with the chaos outside of their front door."
Being Muslim and living in a volatile area of Delhi, the gentle and soft-spoken brothers had tumultuous lives, adding to their problems. "The outside world constantly seeps into their lives and we've shown this through audio," says Sen. The brothers' friend, Salik Rehman, is watching a news broadcast on TV that warns of the violence brewing. Like the kite that the brothers struggle to save, many Muslims found themselves uneasy during this period — thrust into a tense political situation, ridden with the threat of violence amid growing prejudice.
On a personal level, the brothers fought another battle — for financial support. They tried desperately to find donors and reached many breaking points over the years when they thought about quitting. Medical costs to treat the birds, and the meat required to feed them runs up $20,000 bills annually, Nadeem says. "It was divine grace that helped us go on," he says.
Today, after media exposure led to donations that helped build a full-fledged bird hospital in a building across the street, the brothers are in a much better place. In addition to their own work at the hospital, they have two full-time employees and a part-time vet. Tangled Bank Studios, one of the producers of the documentary, recently donated $25,000.
For the audience, there is a powerful message in the brothers' deep love for the kite – the joy of sharing the experience of life. As the brothers say in the film, "You don't care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship."
All That Breathes is being released in select theaters in the U.S. It was released in New York on Oct. 21 and will begin screenings in Los Angeles on Oct. 28. HBO plans to stream the film in 2023.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.