Saunak Sen (director) & Aman Mann (producer)
The story of Delhi’s apocalyptic air and escalating communal violence is woven together by an unlikely figure—the black kite, and its human entanglements.
If you stare long enough at the grey monotone skies in certain parts of Delhi, at some point you’ll see a bird fall out of the sky. The sheer opacity of Delhi’s toxic air ensures that bigger birds, especially raptors, regularly collide into buildings or get entangled in wires. Nadeem and Saud grew up in a working-class Muslim neighbourhood with narrow, dingy lanes. The act of looking up provided a kind of release into an open, liberating expanse. At a very early age, they fell in love with things that flew. They fell in love, in particular, with the black kite. When the brothers first found an injured kite, they took it to a bird hospital. The hospital, however, refused to treat it – because it was a “non-vegetarian” bird. At the time, the teenage Nadeem and Saud were training to be professional bodybuilders. They used their informal knowledge of muscles and tendons to care for the bird on their own. Since then, they have operated on and rehabilitated over 15,000 birds in their tiny garage-basement. India recently took a sharp turn towards religious majoritarianism. Things reached a crescendo last year when the government introduced a controversial Citizenship Bill that, many argue, is discriminatory towards the citizenship of 182 million Muslims in the country. Widespread protests on an unprecedented scale rocked the country from December 2019. Nadeem and Saud increasingly found themselves torn between their kite duties, unsure of whether to join the thousands on the streets. Both their wives decided to join the street protests, even as the brothers themselves stayed back. After two months of unabating street protests, things took a horrifically violent turn. North Delhi was enveloped in deadly violence. Mobs killed over 50 people and burned hundreds of houses. Most of the victims were Muslims. With violence nearing their neighbourhood as well, the brothers spent many nights patrolling the front of their house in fear of oncoming blood-thirsty mobs. Alongside this was the alarming rise in mysterious kite injuries. Delhi has the highest density of these raptors in the world, a growth that, stunningly, corresponds with the city’s rising pollution levels. Yet, more injured kites arrive at the brothers’ each day with inexplicable cases of blindness and neural deformities. Today, the brothers find themselves in a severely vulnerable position, but carry on with their characteristic wry attitude. The combined stories of this human-kite ensemble paint an untold picture of life in the world’s most hazardous urban environment. It tells the story of toxicity in the air, and amongst people – and a remarkable family that chooses to battle on against the backdrop of both.
Shaunak Sen is a filmmaker, video artist and film scholar based in Delhi. Cities of Sleep (2016), his first feature length documentary was shown at various major international film festivals (European premiere at DOK Leipzig) and won 6 international documentary awards. Shaunak received the Films Division of India Fellowship (2013), the Sarai CSDS Digital Media fellowship (2014), Pro Helvetia residency, Switzerland (2016), the Charles Wallace Grant, as visiting scholar at Cambridge University (2018), the IDFA Bertha Fund (2019), the Sundance Documentary Grant (2019), the Catapult Film Fund (2020) and the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund (2020). He is currently working on his second documentary project Airborne.
Aman Mann is a filmmaker and media researcher based in New Delhi. Aman was the associate director of Cities of Sleep (Dir. Shaunak Sen, 75 mins, 2016), which was screened in several international festivals (DOK Leipzig, DMZ Docs, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, among others) and won 6 international documentary awards. Aman has produced various ad films, short documentaries and video installations. He is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies in Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi. Aman is also producing the in-production project Airborne (Dir. Shaunak Sen) which received the IDFA Bertha Fund (2019), the Sundance Documentary Grant (2019), the Catapult Film Fund (2020) and the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund (2020). He was part of the IDFAcademy Young Producer’s Programme in 2019.