Ten-year-old Manik loves his kites. His sister Shanti, one year older, complains that he beats her if she touches them. Sometimes he flies a kite on the roof of the Calcutta brothel that is their home, where it soars high above the squalor of the Sonagachi red-light district that he and his peers seem unlikely to escape. "When our mother works in a room, we go up and play on the roof," he explains.
You can see a flicker of pride in 11-year-old Avijit’s face as he recalls the man his father used to be. He was a very good man once, Avijit insists, fat and robust enough to beat up two men at once. Even today, mention of his name commands respect in the marketplace. Yet now Avijit’s father is a shell of that man, aware of little more than his hashish addiction. "I try to love him a little," Avijit concludes.
"The men who come to our building are not so good," says Suchitra, a tall, quiet 14-year-old from three generations of prostitutes. "They drink and they swear… The women ask me, when will you join the line?" When photojournalist Zana Briski, who moved into the red-light district with the intention of understanding and documenting brothel life before finding herself and the children mutually drawn to one another, asks Suchitra if she sees any solution, the girl pauses and ponders, making the inevitable negative answer all the more heartbreaking.
If Born Into Brothels merely recorded the marginal lives of these beautiful, all but doomed children, it would probably be nearly unbearable, though potentially still worthwhile. But Briski, who has a master’s in theology and religious studies from Cambridge, doesn’t merely document the children’s milieu. Instead, she does something revolutionary: She empowers them to document it for themselves, putting cameras in their hands and teaching them to use them.
The results are arresting. The kids take to photography with alacrity, learning composition, depth of field, point of view. The results aren’t always inspired; thirteen-year-old Gour is chagrined to realize that he shot two rolls of film one night and forgot to use a flash, and Shanti again incurs her brother’s anger by somehow getting her fingers in front of his lens just as he’s taking a shot.
But sometimes the kids’ pictures have real power and verve (visit kids-with-cameras.org to see — or purchase — samples of their work). Sassy Puja, 11, goes boldly into the Sonagachi streets with her camera, her self-assurance giving her immunity from the natural hostility to photographers that pervades the red-light district. Others, like Suchitra, take pictures from the rooftops or indoors, capturing images of children or animals, or still lifes in architecture or ordinary objects.
Several of the kids show promise, but one in particular has a special gift. "Whose pictures do you think are better, yours or your brother’s?" Briski asks Shanti, but Shanti knows who takes the best pictures: Avijit, whose eye for creative composition and flair for dramatic lighting make his pictures stand out even among the best of his peers’ work.
Before long, "Zana Auntie" (as the kids take to calling her) has the kids commenting knowledgeably on one another’s work as well as their own. "I want to show in pictures how people live in this city," says Gaur. "I want to put across the behavior of man." And Avijit comments that even pictures of difficult or unpleasant subjects bear scrutiny, "because they are the truth."
The gift of photography offers Briski’s voiceless, powerless students the power to speak across oceans and language barriers. With Briski’s help, the pictures are brought to the world. There’s a New York gallery show. An auction at Sotheby’s, proceeds for which will help pay for educations for the young photographers, their only hope for escaping the cycle of destitution and dissolution. Back in Calcutta, gathered around a television set, the children watch in delight and fascination as wine-and-cheese New Yorkers peruse and purchase their work.
Later, there is another exhibit in their own country, and the children get dressed up for the crowds and television cameras. To Manik and Shanti’s delight, the invitations to the show feature Manik’s "spoiled" photo with Shanti’s fingers, and at the gallery Shanti proudly displays the now-famous digits for the crowd: Yes, these are the very fingertips gracing all those invitations!
Questioned by reporters, Avijit talks about his hopes for the future: "I used to want to be a doctor, then I wanted to be an artist. Now I want to be a photographer." And Shanti enthusiastically credits their mentor’s teaching skills: "Zana Auntie teaches us so well that everything goes into our brain! We like doing photography so much that we forget to do our work!"
A doctor or a photographer? Lofty ambitions for a child of a Sonagachi brothel. Briski’s efforts have given Avijit and his peers reason to hope — though as his story unfolds Avijit starts to become disaffected and sullen, at one point bleakly observing, "There is nothing called ‘hope’ in my future." It isn’t only her photography lessons; Briski increasingly becomes the children’s advocate, petitioning local boarding schools to take them out of the brothels, fighting with bureaucrats to get records and papers, even taking them for HIV testing required by one school.
Briski’s profound involvement with her subjects has led some critics to complain about what is variously described as the film’s "paternalism," "self-congratulation," or "missionary zeal" — an objection I can only regard as insufferably smug when leveled by comfortable American critics at the record of someone who lived with these kids over a period of years and has done far more for them than anyone else to give them a shot at a better life. Someone who has invested the blood, sweat and tears that "Zana Auntie" has in the lives of these forgotten children has surely earned the right to some immunity from supercilious politically correct abuse. Let her critics move into a Calcutta brothel a few months and earn the right to criticize.
Others object, more reasonably, to the film’s lack of documentary depth. We never get a sense, for instance, of the scope or social-cultural context of Calcutta prostitution; from the website I learn that over 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes in Calcutta’s red light district, but I don’t remember learning anything like that from the film.
This is an understandable objection, but I prefer to allow documentarians broad discretion regarding how they wish to approach their topic. If nature documentaries like Atlantis, Microcosmos, and Winged Migration can approach their subjects with little or no educational narration at all, surely Briski can choose to document her interactions with the brothel children without needing to educate us on the dominant social and political forces in Calcutta. If you want sociology, try an encyclopedia. Briski is doing something different, and what she does is so extraordinary I see no point carping about what she didn’t do.
The closing titles, in which we learn which children have or haven’t managed to break out of the invisible bars of deprivation and depravation, temper hope with heartbreak, idealism with reality. Appalling decisions are made, sometimes by the children, sometimes by perverse guardians. Despite this, Born into Brothels both illustrates and exemplifies the power of art and artists to make a difference. It’s one of the most constructive and inspiring takes on the relationship of art and responsibility, of the artist and the world, that I’ve ever seen. Next to Briski’s enacted prayers, what prayers I might offer today for these children half a world away seem woefully inadequate.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.