A Decade After Zana Brisky’s ‘Born Into Brothels’: Narratives of the Children of Sonagachhi, Kolkata Continue to Haunt

Listen, the shell of the black sky breaks, its torrents 
Tumble down the shady lane where gentlemen 
Tussle over used women, and their fragrant, forbidden rain. 
Houses, close quarters huddled, one after the other, 
Breathing raspy, rickety, festering in a rain smell
That has never known the pervasive rhythm 
Of a pure, welcoming sun.’ 

[Lines of a poem written on the infamous red-light area of Kolkata, Sonagachhi, to the daily ignominy of the lives of the sex workers inhabiting the area, and the dreams fostered by their children forced to share the living spaces with their mothers, grandmothers, torchbearers of a grim, primitive legacy, the flesh trade. Inspired by Zana Brisky’s award-winning documentary ‘Born Into Brothels’ that documented these youthful, talented and spirited children and their dreams to get the passport to a saner, more hopeful world.]

In a world of abject poverty, abuse and despair; the resilience of childhood and the restorative power of art go hand-in-hand to transport children born in filth to a new world, a world which they are taught to discover with new eyes. Those who have seen the seething documentary written and directed by Zana Brisky and Ross Kauffman named “Born Into Brothels” based in the red-light districts of Calcutta, will surely be able to identify this image as a central element of the much-acclaimed film of 2004.

After 16 years of its release, this immensely inspiring and uplifting documentary still puts other narrative documentaries to shame, as we discover that even today, the several unforgettable children born in the red-light area portrayed so sensitively in the film remains a hushed-up reality of the underbelly of the city of Kolkata, India. In fact, after more than a decade of the film is released, it remains relevant not only as a widely acclaimed documentary (recipient of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and the Academy Award in 2005) but as an intense, gripping chronicle of the sex workers’ children and their amazing transformative journeys. Have their lives changed in some way in all these years? 

When Zana Brisky and Ross Kauffman had actually embarked on the project, they intended to tear the façade of the apparently growing prosperity of India and unravel the dark underbelly of poverty, deprivation and human exploitation that keeps growing in the other side of the nation. It remains an overwhelming reality and will remain so, for long. 

Highlights of ‘Born Into Brothels’: A Tour-de-force of the infamous Red-Light Area of Kolkata, Sonagachhi: 

Born into brothels kolkata sonagachi

Both the directors Briski and Kauffman went a long way to convince a special group of children of the prostitutes of the area to photograph the most reluctant subjects dwelling inside the entire institution of skin-trading. Briski, a professional photographer from New York, spends years of her life in with these kids, exploring the hopeless lives of the sons and daughters of prostitutes through photography and film. On one hand, she relentlessly portrays the world of sex workers and their hopeless, depraved life within the precincts of Sonagachhi, the flesh-trading hub of the city of Kolkata. On the other hand, she exhibits her iron determination to use the art of photography which can potentially provide the children with the opportunity for higher education, hope and a better life. In the course of the film’s narrative, the children, enthused with their ‘Zana Aunty’ and their newly found cameras, came up with photographs that ignited latent sparks of artistic genius residing within them. As a token of honour and acknowledgement of his work, one boy named Avijit had been sent to a photography conference in Amsterdam. Briski also recorded her efforts to place the children in boarding schools. Avijit Haldar, the boy who has now been transformed into a full-time artist based in New York City, has earned his BA in Film from New York University and has recently been a graduate of the ICP-Bard MFA program (2019). 

The portrayal of the artistry of the children in the film, as reflected in their works of photography not only served as examples of remarkable observation and talent, but also reflected something much larger: the role of art in all humanity as a liberating, empowering force. With the cameras in their hands, the children went on a clicking spree, creating fragments of moments of their life which become prisms into their souls, reflecting the power of their indelible creative spirit. Here, the filmmakers use a poetic, metaphorical narrative, using mostly pictures taken by the children and the expressions of the children. However, reality soon surfaces as they navigate through unbelievable levels of bureaucratic quicksand in an attempt to get the children out of the slums and into boarding schools.

To be honest, the film comes out of an impulse of the filmmakers not only to document the lives of poor, neglected and oppressed, but also to chronicle the world of resistance and chaotic bureaucracy that surrounds it. There is a surrealistic delight in the intelligence that blossom in the children at various points of the narrative. At the same time, there is the cruelty of social arrangements that allow those qualities to be squandered, which justifies the second half of the film. 

Born Into Brothels: The Trailer:

Has ‘Born into Brothels’ really served its purpose as a philanthropic mission, improving the lives of the children featured in it?  

After the film received accolades and awards, while Zana Brisky had tried to mobilize resources for the children by money earned through the sale of photos and a book on them, there was also substantial controversy regarding her approach to use hidden cameras and misrepresenting the children’s parents and families residing in Sonagachhi. Honestly, as a filmmaker, Briski knew that the circumstances of these children were too complex to be revolutionized by educating one family member in photography, or even by sending them to boarding school. For the records, the film itself depicted scenes in the end where many of those put into boarding school ended up leaving the school and returning to their previous life of squalor before long. Coupled with it, there was the challenge to counter hundreds of years of narrow mindedness and the proverbial Indian bureaucracy. As a filmmaker, Brisky deals with all this not as a social worker, but as a sensitive human being with her own vulnerabilities. This is precisely what brings a sense of truth into the entire exercise of creating the film. 

Moreover, among the pathbreaking efforts to accommodate at least one child in the mainstream, we can definitely refer to the life of Avijit Haldar, the wonder kid portrayed in the film who went on a transformative journey through the aid of photography. In December 2019, Avijit gave an interview as part of the Houston Centre for Photography’s Words & Pictures Lecture Series, documenting his path to photography from his childhood years, growing up in the red-light district of Kolkata to his current life as an interdisciplinary artist living in New York City. Avijit’s life and his exemplary transformation bear testimony to the artistic and humanitarian vision that Brisky had in promoting the documentary for a greater cause, and will continue to be an example for many filmmakers. 

References: 

Kids with cameras

Born into Brothels 2005

A Conversation between Avijit Halder and Ashlyn Davis

3 comments

  1. A must read indeed, so necessary documentation it is, absolutely wonderfully presented by you, Lopa DIDI….
    We know so little about their upbringing, their daily life struggles….
    This is enriched with such wonderful information and their way of life, their sufferings and griefs, strength and struggle…Great penning indeed

    SONALI
    .

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