Friday, January 18, 2008

Born Into Brothels

Amidst all the euphoria of the stock market striking the magical 20,000 figure, all thoughts of dark India recede to the background. It is buried deep inside conveniently forgotten because we just cannot face the reality that we are a part of a world where the Pareto principle reigns supreme.

As I walk around the streets of Mumbai, there are so many maimed beggars that I see but I find it difficult to look into their eyes. Wonder if it is a sense of disgust at the thought of Shining India or a guilt that comes to the fore when I stare at these half naked bodies crying out for help.

Born into Brothels is in many ways a rude reminder to the fact that these wretched poor exist in a separate and parallel universe, without an exit, while far away from all this is the prosperous booming India where we find ourselves. It is a 2004 American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district, who continue to live on the fringes, neglected and unkempt.

While the state of prostitutes in this part of the world is quite pathetic, the condition in which they bring up their children ensures that the next generation also ends up no better. The mostly illegitimate children of these sex workers are also expected to "join the line” when they reach a certain age (or does age even matter?).

Minor girls are highly sought after in brothels (read virgins needed) and secure good prices, making it very difficult for the parents to let them leave, especially when they represent the only source of income in the entire family.

Zana Briski, an American photographer, visited India in the late 1990s, taking pictures of women's issues in India and at a certain point, was invited to go to Kolkatta to become part of a photography show. She somehow traced her steps to Sonagachi, one of the oldest red light areas in India where approximately 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes, and that was where her journey started.

Ross Kauffman, her collaborator, joined her later and they ended up making this acclaimed documentary film which won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature in 2005.

While the women were reluctant to let Zana peep into their lives, the children responded very spontaneously to her efforts. In order to understand them better, Zana lived with them, provided the children with 35mm cameras and taught them how to use them.

It is from the images the children captured and their experiences they had while doing so, that the film's script unfolds. The result is a film that takes us inside squalid brothels and allows us to see the world through the eyes of some of its most vulnerable residents. Shot using a digital camera, we get to know the children through their photos.

Opening with an introduction of its kids and the harsh reality of their lives, the movie follows the children as they wander, cameras in hand, through the streets of Kolkatta. The film also documents Briski's uphill efforts in trying to rescue these youngsters from a seemingly morbid future, and seeks some educational facility that will accept them.

But clearly this is so much easier said than done, as one nun tells Briski when the filmmaker seeks her help in locating a school for the children, "Nobody will take them" because they are the offspring of prostitutes. Some manage to find places in special schools despite these issues but the biggest obstacle remain the children's own mothers and guardians, often protective out of the sheer necessity for survival.

Clearly, the fathers do not even exist in many of these places and even if they do, they remain nothing but faceless pimps, wallowing in their own world of drugs.

Zana also experiences the pleasures of dealing with the Indian bureaucracy while trying to secure a passport for one of her students, who is selected to travel to Amsterdam to be part of a children's jury at a World Press Photo Foundation photo exhibit in Amsterdam in 2002. She moves pillar to post trying to get the relevant documents and after great effort, finally manages to send Avijit, one of the kids, to Amsterdam.

Will the boys also be used as prostitutes in future? The movie is silent about this. There is no scene that is sexually explicit or anything that suggests any form of titillation because of the filmmakers' intent in not wanting to exploit their subjects, which is such a welcome relief. After all, a voyeuristic peep into the world of sex with liberal doses of titillation would sell just as well, would'nt it? And of course, you could justify it in the name of art.

Briski says there is no logical or rational reason she invests herself so completely in this endeavour. She admits in the film that she is no social worker, but wanted very much to help the kids, for otherwise their future was a dismal one lacking hope beyond a world of prostitution, drugs and crime.

Through the ups and downs of this journey of her spirit as she wades through the various aspects of India (alien to her), she learns that there is a limit to which she can make a difference. The problem is much more chronic and providing cameras to a bunch of individuals will not resolve the larger menace.

The credits at the end tell us about the future of the kids taken to a boarding school. Only a couple of them continue to stay in their boarding schools while the majority is taken out by their parents, drop out, or is asked to leave.

I guess the solution is not so simple after all; the red light district has existed for centuries and will exist for centuries more. Is art and education enough to empower these children? Quite possibly no but these are steps nevertheless. Moreover, as a society, we have a role in treating these individuals with respect and not just treat them as scum which needs to be cleaned.

Zana allows us to peep into the world of children, caught in this web where hope is the only way to survive; is it not just so unfair that some people have a natural advantage over the others merely because of their place of birth? Aren’t we so lucky to escape from all this and be able to read this while many thousands are resigned to lives of eternal misery???

Zana and Ross have started an organization called Kids with Cameras and funds donated to them are used to teach photography and educate children across. Even if we are indifferent towards the under privileged classes, let us atleast support such attempts. The audience along with me in the theatre certainly felt a sense of empathy as they applauded generously; hope everyone else feels the same…


  1. Thkx pradeep!

    Yet again another fantastic movie review,so much so that i was desperate to get my hands on this documentary film somehow. N for you other folks caught in the same despair as me, fret not! U can find it at google videos:

    Lets thank the very generous people at Google!

    As i was watching the film, i started thinking of all those things we do that are a temporary reprieve from the guilt of being given much much more than some others in this world.

    And i remembered the call of Swami Vivekananda more than a hundred years ago – “Awake, awake great souls! The world is burning in misery. Can you sleep?”. Who is

    “Feel, my children, feel; feel for the poor, the ignorant, the downtrodden; feel till the heart stops and the brain reels and you think you will go mad; then pour the soul out at the feet of the Lord, and then will come power, help and indomitable energy”

  2. Thanks, Shree...Caught the movie as part of the Enlighten Film Society..Thanks to them and Google videos for this.

    On a lighter side, the stock market has been crashing since then, so my first line stands corrected!!!