Hardly a prime travel destination for American tourists, Calcutta is
usually experienced through deluxe hotels and package tours that
include visits to museums, parks, and the Victoria Memorial. More have
heard about the crowded Bengali city's extreme poverty, disease, and
filth as well as Mother Theresa and her saintly mission among the
underclasses. Outside of Satyajit Ray, few filmmakers have focused on
life in Calcutta and even fewer have dealt with the seamier side of the
city in any extended way. To do so on location would require developing
long-term relationships and gaining trust—especially in Calcutta's red light district, Sonagachi. And that is exactly what first-time filmmaker Zana Briski does in Born into Brothels, a documentary that premiered at the 2004 Sundance Festival.
Briski initially had no plans to create a documentary. A professional still photographer attracted to the district but realizing that strangers weren't welcome to snap the locals, she sought long term housing in the brothels to get to know the people. While adults are generally slow to trust new people, children are quicker to risk fresh relationships, so Briski soon became acquainted with them and wanted to give something of herself to help break the pervasive cycle of helplessness and despair. Thus, began the photography classes that eventually led to the film project.
Born into Brothels becomes much more than a mere documentary—it develops into a cause since any notoriety gained can translate into scholarships and hope for a handful of kids that otherwise are condemned to "join the line" as their mothers have done. It turns out that many of these kids have great sensitivity and true artistic instincts—notably 12-year old Avijit, who has won numerous awards for his paintings and was invited to Amsterdam to participate on the 2002 Children's Jury by the World Press Photo Foundation. One of the delights of the film involves watching Briski fight through the Indian bureaucracy to get a passport for Avijit. Creating suspense through the seemingly impossible prospects, brings welcome smiles to see a gleeful Avijit clutching his passport, ordering the taxi to drive carefully to the airport, photographing the tops of clouds, and expertly critiquing other children's photographs.
Educators in particular will find the film affirming, though this is no sentimental "feel good" film along the lines of Mr. Holland's Opus. Life in Sonagachi is hard, and many scenes that show abusive parents screaming four letter epithets at "fathers" and children are uncomfortable to look at—but their inclusion assures the film's authenticity. Universally, parents want a better life for their kids but also have their own issues that make it hard for them to extend their dreams from the reality of brothel life or difficulty detaching themselves from their children. After a long line of ancestors from the red light district, how can a prostitute believe that their children can succeed from getting a better education? That becomes the largely unspoken theme of the film, and lies underneath.
Only the truly cynical could see these bright-eyed children contrasted against the harsh realities of Sonagachi without being affected. Filmmakers Briski and Ross Kauffman take pains to paint portraits of the individual children to see their talents and dreams. Thirteen-year old Gour breaks the ice with a forthright description of his home, how he hoped to use his photographic skills to change it, and how he longs to attend a university. His best friend, Puja (a charming 11-year old tomboy), also plans for higher education and courage is her greatest asset. More than anyone else, she is able to photograph the locals on the street without being scared off.
Never before had I seen such an intimate view of such a squalid lifestyle, yet these kids still bring rays of sunlight to the sordid surroundings. They haven't given up hope, and this documentary itself lends possibilities for a better future for its subjects. Those who think the kids were merely "used" to gain unprecedented access to the previously unfilmable miss the larger picture—Born into Brothels hopefully will gain larger audiences that will participate in the scholarship fund associated with the project (See the Official Site). As 2005 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, even more recognition has come to the project.
Going beyond the maudlin infomercials that prey upon audience sympathies, the film educates as well as inspires, and sincerely represents social activism in the best ways. Just as Ikiru's Kanji desires to do one notable deed to make his life meaningful, filmmakers Briski and Kauffman have crafted a generous portrait of humanity that also responsibly makes a positive difference.