By Michele Leight
Despite the disturbing subject matter of "Born
Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids," art is the underlying
force of a photographer's remarkable infiltration - based on trust
- into the lives of the prostitutes and their children in the
Sonargachi brothels of Calcutta, India.
A British photo-journalist with a Masters in
Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge,
Zana Briski studied documentary photography at International Center
of Photography in New York. In 1995 she made her first trip to
India producing a story on female infanticide; she returned to
India in 1997 and began her project that lead to "Born Into
Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids."
Briski's quest to record the lives of these
women and their children lead her to team up in 2000 with co-director
Ross Kaufmann, a film editor turned film director from New York
- with an impressive resume including editing for PBS, The Discovery
Channel and National Geographic. Mr. Kaufmann joined her after
seeing four videotapes she sent him from Calcutta. This film documents
Briski's attempt to try to empower a small group of children from
the brothels - through the art of photography - and follow their
lives with their mothers for several years.
Besides being an important film, "Born
Into Brothels" is also a documentary history of some of the
most marginalized families in the world, whose personal circumstances
are usually hidden from the world because of the stigma surrounding
prostitution. This film shows that they have little to do with
the forces that put them on society's edge - to be blamed, exploited
and abused because of what they do.
The fate of the children is not resolved, but
their dreams resonate in our world and lives, even though we do
not live in India - all great art connects universally. The approach
to the film's subjects and their harsh lives is unsentimental
and there is no sugar-coating, which is why they always maintain
their dignity. Above all, the directors do not patronize or condescend,
as is often the case in "developing world" documentaries.
"It's them, not us" has no place in this story. We're
all in it together from the first frame.
The film won the Audience Award at The Sundance
Film Festival, 2004, the Nestor Almendros Prize in 2004 for Courage
in Filmmaking from Human Rights Watch, and the Audience Award
in 2004 from Amnesty International, amongst many others.
In 2002 Briski and Kaufmann were awarded grants
from The Sundance Institute, The Jerome Foundation and The New
York State Council on the Arts for their film. "Born Into
Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids" is one of twelve listed
as potential nominees for a Documentary Oscar and will debut in
New York at The Film Forum (http://www.filmforum.com)
on December 8th, 2004. It will be released in theatres nationwide
in January, 2005.
In 2002, Briski founded Kids With Cameras,
a non-profit organization to help educate the children of Calcutta's
prostitutes and empower other marginalized children worldwide
through learning the art of photography.
The film crosses over into territory - Sonargachi,
Calcutta - few will ever enter. After gaining a woman's trust,
Briski was finally allowed to rent a room in one of the most densely
populated and notorious brothels in the world, taking her cameras
with her. For obvious reasons, the prostitutes had to be cautious
and took their time to open up to Briski. Cameras and reporters
are dangerous entities when people operate in an illegal world,
with pimps breathing down their neck at every moment. Unless they
are paid - this is not uncommon in poor countries - which does
not count. This happens a lot, but the footage in this film could
never have been bought.
As I watched the film in the packed auditorium
of The Asia Society in New York on November 18th, 2004, the distance
between India and the United States evaporated. No stranger to
the emotional and geographical landscape of this film, where most
of the women ply their trade as prostitutes because they are forced
to for all kinds of reasons related to poverty, I was reminded
through the searing honesty of the lens that being born a "girl
child" in some countries is a threat from the moment of birth
- simply because they are female.
The predicament of the prostitutes and their
kids fills you "with grief for the whole world" as V.S.
Naipaul's Willie Chandran says in his latest novel "Magic
Seeds;" and the situation looks hopeless; but these real
life women have no time for tears or sentimentality as they "work"
at the worst job in the world ("in the line," as it
is called in Sonargachi), because they have hungry young mouths
to feed and no other way but prostitution to do it.
Why would Zana Briski want to enter this forsaken
world? Sonargachi is illegal, so the women in the film have no
rights at all in a world of territorial pimps and drug pushers,
wife beaters, rapists and molesters, sex traffickers and predators
of all kinds, including rats which the camera rests on as they
feed on garbage in the opening minutes of the film. If anything
goes wrong, the women are alone, unprotected, with no back up
from law enforcement and there are no laws to protect them if
they are brutally treated. Enter at your own risk; and that includes
photographers and filmmakers.
"Why do I do this?" Briski is asked
in the film.
"Because I feel very connected to these
Zana Briski first went to India in 1995, traveling
and photographing some of the most disturbing subject matter in
the world, all related to Indian women: female infanticide, child
marriage, dowry deaths and widowhood. So prostitution would be
a natural progression. Prostitution is what happens when girls
fall out of the loop - they are also a mirror of every violation
it is possible to heap upon a single female group or entity. They
are the epicenter of what is wrong with the way society views
and treats women in both the developing world - or in any situation
where a woman is vulnerable - and that includes wealthy, developed
Why has AIDS penetrated the monogamous wife
or partners bedroom all over the world? A staggering number of
faithful wives who have only known intimacy with their husbands
are getting AIDS. The men who have sex with prostitutes are invisible
- but the prostitutes they use are not.
There is no bedroom in the world today that
has no risk for AIDS. Those who are in denial are deluding themselves.
Which is why we can all relate to this film,
no matter which country or socio-economic background we are from.
Abuse and infidelity lurk in unlikely places - from beautiful
homes in quiet suburban towns in the west to upper class homes
in the developing world. It is simply a matter of degree - and
to what extent the law is able to exert it's power to help violated
women. In India, there are no laws to protect violated women.
They have no property or inheritance rights for starters.
In developing nations - India, Thailand, Africa
and many others - when a girl is born poor, unwanted, or poverty
suddenly strikes a family, or if a woman becomes widowed, she
is forced to sell the only commodity she has - her body - to ensure
that she, and often her entire family, survive. In India prostitution
is a way of life and societal norms condone married men using
their services without censure. It's ok, and the wife cannot do
much about it. In Russia married women work as prostitutes with
the full support of their husbands - in fact they suggest it.
In India, the man who uses her is never blamed - but the prostitute
is. This is a pattern around the world.
Husbands are a constant presence in "Born
Into Brothels" - men who have no jobs, or are drug addicts,
or alcoholics; so are the prostitutes aunts and grandmothers and
extended families. A husband beats his prostitute wife because
she will not give him money for booze - this is related to us
by one of the kids - and after the beating she progresses to the
next ordeal of preparing herself for clients. She also has a pimp
who controls her life and takes a significant percentage of her
earnings in return for his services. The children of these families
are not protected from any of these realities; it all plays out
right under their noses.
It is nothing short of a miracle that Briski
survived such surroundings - after the screening she did say she
got hepatitis and stomach aliments - but those who have entered
this territory are aware that it could have been much uglier;
pimps are often violently protective of their charges, and who
would even know if something happened in that crush of humanity?
Briski had an angel on each shoulder, or as my son would say "the
force was with her," because all women in unprotected terrain
like Sonargachi - let alone a foreign woman with a camera - or
even walking alone in the street anywhere in Asia, walk a fragile
tightrope. It is quite a different thing for a man.
Following the daily lives of all the players
in this real life drama is like watching people dive through a
ring of fire whose circumference is so narrow that at any moment
any one of them may be consumed in a pall of smoke. I was gritting
my teeth to be honest, expecting a catastrophy at every turn,
and I thanked whatever higher power it is that brought us this
wonderful film - and Briski and Kaufmann - back home with their
project safe and sound. Clearly, India is also home to Briski,
as it is to all of us who have experienced the country and people
for any length of time.
After adjusting to the congested labyrinth
of the brothel, we are confronted with eight smiling, winsome,
smart and energetic kids - 3 boys and 5 girls, whose names I will
not list here - all children of prostitutes. These children are
even more stigmatized than their mothers:
"People tease us and say mean things,"
says one girl.
But the kids are feisty and resilient and soon
they are not content to remain subjects through Briski's lens
- they start grabbing at her camera and want to take photographs
themselves! Smart kids.
So she gives them point and shoot cameras and
film; and a photography workshop - with a teacher included - is
"Zana Aunty teaches us so well that everything
goes into our brain, and we forget to do our other work,"
says one of the children in the film.
Indian children respectfully address all adult
males as "uncle" and females as "aunty" whether
or not they are directly related to them.
Briski leads them steadily through the mechanics
of photography and film, like an after-school class in any well-to-do
community, encouraging the children to pursue their own unique
vision and we enter their "other world," a world of
At the same time, we go deeper into the lives
of the kids and their mothers, aided by an unwavering lens, so
that we never become prying voyeurs and they never lose their
dignity. We meet their families, laugh along with them at the
children's antics - they sound like any exasperated aunt, mother
or grandma anywhere trying to keep up with their kids energy.
We are given a long hard look at the day to day realities of one
of the most brutal of all female jobs "in the line,"
which is where all five young girls are headed - and perhaps even
the boys - unless someone rescues them.
In one higher caste Brahmin family a grandma
and mother have worked as prostitutes; and time is running out
for the perky daughter as she matures. She will represent the
third generation if prostitution claims her.
In the midst of the exploitation and chaos,
art is always present; the camera drinks in the gorgeous colors
of India; lingers in the sensuous sheen of skin and luscious fabrics
and saris, the flowers in the hair and most of all in the fresh
beauty of the children. It is their spunk and spirit that holds
us up as we grasp for ways to understand how life can take children
to such a place.
One of the girls says:
"My father tried to sell me; I worry that
I might become like them."
One of the boys says of his best friend:
"I wish I could take her away from here."
It is comments like these, delivered with the
flawless instincts and straight-up frankness of youth, that wrench;
the kids understand everything and they are barely 12 years old.
The saving grace of what could be an unbearably sad film is that,
by giving these children cameras to confront - and escape - the
reality of their lives, Briski arms them with the possibility
of a way out through their own creativity.
The children work long hours doing family chores,
or preparing meals for "clients" late into the night.
They look forward to their workshop with "Zana Aunty"
and the company of their peers.
As they critique their own and each other's
photographs on contact sheets during the photography workshops,
the children begin to separate from the pre-conceived inevitability
of their surroundings and futures as prostitutes. They begin to
feel significant; portfolio evaluation by Briski makes them feel
worthy, important. They go beyond merely enduring their lives
as stigmatized non- entities - to feeling like contenders. Through
their own creativity they dare to dream of an alternative life
- as filmmakers, photographers and artists - something their own
mothers have never been able to do.
The camera pans between young hands scrubbing
away endlessly at pots with grungy cleaning rags as one child
takes on household chores, to the same hands holding and clicking
away at a camera. We all know which we'd rather see such young
children do. I could feel the grit and caustic sting of the cleaning
powder on young skin.
These endangered, marginalized families know
they are on their own - to survive as best they can, even if it
means inducting their own daughters into the sordid, sexually
violent world of prostitution - which, in today's AIDS climate,
puts them at almost certain risk for AIDS. Although I write about
the arts, the global AIDS epidemic is an issue I have been tracking
and reporting about since 2000, and India's rising statistics
It is no coincidence that the countries now
experiencing the highest increase in female AIDS infections are
also the countries where women have virtually no rights, little
control over decisions that involve their bodies, no laws to protect
them if they are in abusive marriages or relationships, and societal
norms favor the man whatever his behavior (including seeing prostitutes
while married and not using a condom in either situation).
So a woman in a country like India has to put
up with it - and shut up - or risk everything. She has no way
out of an abusive or adulterous marriage. The statistics on monogamous
female AIDS infections back this up.
A prostitute has even less going for her and
she is often treated brutally during sex, which increases her
chances of becoming infected with AIDS.
In Africa, 60% of the total AIDS infections
are female; in Eastern Asia and Central Asia female AIDS infections
are up a staggering 56% and 48% respectively according to the
most recent data. These are new infections: AIDS is vertically
transmitted from mother to child without the block of anti-retroviral
medications, but most of the women in these countries do not know
Global AIDS experts now put India in first
place over South Africa for the highest number of AIDS infections
in the world. The net is closing in on India, and for those who
love the country and its beautiful people, it is agony to contemplate
what AIDS is going to do there.
At the post-screening discussion Briski said:
"India is in trouble." Much more needs to be done to
protect Indian women as AIDS gains momentum. Indian married women
are not getting AIDS because their husbands are IV drug users.
There is an important segment in the film that
deals with HIV- testing and AIDS because Briski makes plans for
the kids to be taken into private institutions and schools to
get them out of the brothels. These organizations require an HIV
test before admitting children; Briski senses disaster because
she knows the likelihood of these children being HIV-positive
is high, which means no one will take them. The stigma against
AIDS in India is cast in stone, despite the efforts of many incredible
activists, organizations and individuals. There are many people
who care, but not enough is being done to fund and support them.
"It is a miracle none of them is positive,"
says Briski, when the results of the kids' HIV test come back
It is a miracle; the frequency with which the
prostitute mothers are forced to have sex with clients increases
their chance of getting AIDS with each passing day; these clients
are not required to use a condom. Although this is not spelled
out in the film, the working prostitute in India has no right
to demand the use of protection; and even if she is advised to
use protection and wants to, she is usually asked by the client
to forgo this inconvenience to pleasure for more money. And because
she needs the money, she agrees. It is a deadly scenario and it
is at the root of rising AIDS infections all over the world.
Poverty is a scourge, and "Born Into Brothels"
exposes this as the root cause of the predicament of the women
featured in the film - it also taps right into the total violation
of the most fundamental human rights of the women in the film
- the right to health, life and healthy kids whose existence is
not threatened directly by the work they have to do. The job that
feeds them all can also kill them.
The women in the brothels of Sonargachi give
birth all the time - but the prostitutes in the film are typically
unaware of the danger that stalks them every day. If they get
AIDS, these women have no way of affording the medications.
In 2000 a childhood friend in India showed
me photographs of a prostitute who had died of AIDS without the
mercy of anti-retroviral medications. I have never seen a human
being in the physical state that poor woman was in; it was the
most blatant violation of human rights I have ever encountered,
and I am no stranger to atrocities. It was as if 3 grenades had
bored clean through her body - but she was still alive.
She died shortly after the photographs were
taken by my friend - at her request - "to show others what
can happen." She said she wanted her clients to use condoms,
but they said no deal, they would go to someone else. She needed
the money so she waived the right to her own life - not that she
even realized it at the time.
When Briski was asked about AIDS awareness
amongst the prostitutes she had come to know at the post-screening
discussion, she said that despite efforts by many concerned organizations,
they were woefully uneducated about the risks of STDs and AIDS:
"Isn't it enough if I just wash after
sex?" one woman asked her.
AIDS is also transmitted from mother to child
through breast milk; what else will a poor woman feed her child
if she cannot afford fresh milk?
Babies are woven into the life of the prostitutes
in "Born Into Brothels." One of the kid's mothers tenderly
massages her newborn son, who is clothed in vibrant purple hat,
booties and sweater - no diaper, so we know he is a boy. She is
like any mother anywhere, except that soon she has to prepare
for her "night" job servicing clients while her family
sleeps. Her weariness is palpable. She'd much rather just hang
out with her sweet, tiny son, who is contentedly asleep after
a good feed from his mama.
But she has to keep the family afloat, and
she prepares herself.
One of the young girls in the photography workshop
says resignedly that her aunt will force her to work "in
the line" so she can make money off her. I wince at the thought
of this beautiful, vibrant child one day being brutalized by prostitution.
Art has enormous power and it comes to the
rescue when the subject matter in the film is at its darkest.
The children prepare for an important exhibition of their photographs
organized by Briski and Kaufman at The Oxford Bookstore in Calcutta,
where the press will be present, and one of the most talented
boys is invited to attend the World Press Photo Foundation exhibition
in Amsterdam. Their creative identities have strengthened under
Briski's teaching, and even we begin to believe they are entering
a world of infinite possibilities - beyond the brothel.
Despite difficulty trying to get the boy a
passport so he can travel to Amsterdam - because he is the son
of a prostitute - Briski succeeds. The footage of the crowded
passport office drew hoots of laughter from the audience. Clearly
they have also tried to get some vital document in India that
has required taking a sabbatical from life.
This wonderful young boy, now the proud owner
of a passport, has the additional stigma of a hashish-addicted
father, whose addiction probably had something to do with his
wife being forced to become a prostitute. Contemplating his spaced-out
father with a mixture of resignation, love and acute anxiety,
he says sweetly:
"But even then, I try to love him a little."
His capacity for love with all that life has
dealt him blows you away. Everything is going smoothly for this
talented, charismatic boy; the excitement within the workshop
builds for the trip to Amsterdam, when disaster strikes.
Briski is told that the boy's mother has burned
to death in a "kitchen accident."
Doubting the circumstances, Briski learns the
truth from an Indian colleague and aid worker: her pimp set fire
to her. Who knows for what reason; it doesn't take much in India.
Brides are burned regularly when the promised dowry fails to be
paid, usually because the parents simply do not have the money
but wanted to see their child married.
"Can't the police do something?"
she asked the aid worker.
"Nothing can be done," said the woman
sadly, with a look of resignation and grief I have come to know
well in India. Many call it fatalistic - but what about laws?
If people are not accountable for their actions, they will do
whatever they want. Burning someone is cheap and has the desired
effect of getting a lot of attention. If there were a law in place
that prohibited the burning of anyone in India other than in the
burning ghats after death, women would not be burned so often.
Watching the son try to come to grips with
his mother's death at the hands of her pimp is the most disturbing
part of the film; I cannot accept it so how is he ever going to?
He abandons his close-knit group of workshop
friends and does not attend Briski's classes. He runs around with
other kids and can't be found at his home. After all the joy and
anticipation of his trip and his new love - photography - it looks
as if he is going to derail. When pressed by Briski about keeping
his appointment in Amsterdam and moving to a boys' home, he is
dazed and confused by grief:
"There is nothing called hope in my life"
One senses the mounting urgency in Briski to
get him away from the memories and trauma of his mother's death,
and the violence and treachery of the brothel. She gives him an
ultimatum and a date. Yes or no? This is the last chance.
At his lowest ebb, he rallies and accepts Briski's
offer. As the taxi pulls away from the brothel at break-neck speed
(is there any other speed in an Indian taxi?):
"Please drive slowly, I won't get there
if there is an accident," the boy tells the driver, adding:
"I won't fulfill my dreams."
Humor relieves the tension. The audience exploded
I will not give the rest of the film away:
please see it for yourself. It's a beauty. It has my vote for
the Documentary Oscar.
As with so many of the seemingly endangered,
marginalized people I have encountered in India and other countries
in my line of work, it is their relentless ability to hope for
a better future in the worst possible circumstances - for their
children if not for themselves - that make the cynic and doubter
join their ranks.
Creativity ignites hope over and over again
as these eight wonderful "kids with cameras" yearn to
escape their lives through their art. As their creative revolution
unfolds, momentarily lighting up their mothers' hijacked lives,
they lead us over the pain threshold of their existence, so that
like Briski, we can no longer abandon them to the inevitability
of their fate.
"Born Into Brothels" made me long
even harder than I already do for the day when no woman - or man
- is forced by poverty to work as a prostitute. Or be forced to
give up her child to save her - or him - from prostitution and
The most painful reality about this film is
that despite everything these mothers have endured, most of them
want to keep their kids; they agonize over sending them to schools
and homes where they will rarely see them. Prostitution is worth
it to them because it keeps the family together. But it is a deadly
tightrope for all of them, especially the kids, with AIDS closing
Most of the women featured in this film are
not the mothers who sell their children or give them away - or
take their newborn girls out into the fields in the quiet dawn
and murder them because they cannot bear rearing one more unwanted
female child (female infanticide); a girl child who she fears
will starve, or be burned to death as a young bride because the
family cannot pay the dowry, or go into prostitution because the
family is poor. Dowrys should be outlawed.
Briski and Kaufmann do not favor girls at the
expense of boys in this film; but it is the women who are the
victims. The dads are not prostitutes.
In the end, the children leave us smiling with
memories of their indomitable spirit, their irrepressible capacity
for joy against all the odds - and above all the gift of their
art, which nothing can take away. Not even the threat of prostitution,
or the stigma of being born into a brothel - the child of a prostitute
"First I wanted to be a doctor. Then I
wanted to be an artist. Now I want to be a photographer,"
said one of the "kids with cameras."
"When I have a camera in my hands I feel
happy. I feel I am learning something
I can be someone,"
said the girl whose aunt wants her to go into prostitution to
make money off her.
"Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light
Kids" debuts at New York at The Film Forum on December 8th,
2004, and will be released in theatres nationwide in January,