Born Into Brothels – The Kids of Calcutta

An astonishing film about the kids of brothels in Calcutta who take up the camera to document their world. Images of India as you’ve never seen before.

Born into Brothels is an amazing, touching film by Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski that takes us inside the world of the red light district in Calcutta, India and of the children who live there. Funny, authentic and heart-breaking, this documentary opens up worlds light years away from our own and reveals the human condition as most of us will never experience it.

Zana Briski is a photographer who wanted to document the world of the sex workers in Sonagachi, Calcutta but quickly understood that as a traveler she would only be able to offer a superficial glimpse of their lives.

I knew I couldn’t do it as a visitor. I wanted to stay with them, live with them and understand their lives. And of course as soon as I entered the brothels I met the children. The brothels are filled with children, they’re everywhere and… they were so curious, they didn’t understand why this woman had come and what I was doing there. They were all over me and I would play with them and take their photographs and they would take mine. They wanted to learn how to use the camera. That’s when I thought it would be really great to teach them and see this world through their eyes.

Briski runs photography classes with the kids and teaches them the basics of composition and perspectives, equipping each of the children with a simple camera and they head out into the streets to document their world. For most of her students, it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve had anyone pay them attention and classes open up all their latent imagination, curiosity and talent that never had a chance to express itself in their financially and emotionally stunted lives.

Born in Brothels is perhaps such a graphic document by the sheer juxtaposition of the Indian red light scene. Wearing glossy make up and suggestive saris, the prostitutes live in a world of crumbling concrete buildings and filth that belie any suggestion of glamour. The children themselves tell the stories of their drunken, violent fathers or their aunts who want to push them into prostitution to bring in some rupees. The kids still have the light of childhood in their eyes but it’s clear that they’re only a few years away from becoming like their parents whose stream of obscene language and curses would silence a construction worker anywhere in the world.

Briski meanwhile grows close to the children and takes it on herself to try to do something to improve their futures.

The children ask me for help. They ask me all the time and it’s heartbreaking. There’s so little I can do, all I can do is try.

She does more than try, however, as she fights all the odds of stubborn, apathetic families, emotional trauma and impossible bureaucracy to get the children the necessary paperwork to attend a boarding school. The exquisite videography shows us the rotten heart of the Indian system as the officer at the ration office misspells the names, the reports are typed out by old women on typewriters that are falling to pieces and the reports are stacked up in miserable, makeshift piles.

Every year there are travelers, usually European women around the age of 22 who set their hearts on volunteering for a few weeks with street children in third world countries. The idea of helping those who so obviously need it appeals to anyone with a heart and, from a few thousand miles away, it would seem so easy to make a big difference.

Briski is of an altogether other breed, however and understands just how tedious and uphill her work is. Yet she still manages to pull off miracles. She flies back to New York and arranges exhibitions of the photos taken by the children and proceeds from the sales of their photos pay for the boarding school education they so urgently need to escape the vicious circle of their lives in the brothels.

Children don’t need scripts or training to make entertaining viewing and even in the world of violence and mire that they inhabit, their charm shines through on the camera, all the more when they talk of the harsh realities they face. There is nothing sentimental about Born into Brothels and hence its deep, touching impact. It’s a film that communicates the essence of India without needing to wrap itself in exotic imagery of elephants, priests and snake charmers. As any traveler who’s been that way knows, India is itself a movie and needs very little dressing up.

Road Junky loves Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman and Born into Brothels is a film to watch again and again and again.