‘Born into Brothels’

Shedding light on brothel kids in Indian slums


A few weeks back, I reviewed “American Teen,” an intimate documentary of one school year in the lives of some Indiana teens. It was an amazingly candid portrait of the lives of these kids, with hazing, breakups and breakdowns portrayed completely unguarded.

There was no escaping the feeling, though, that these kids — all raised on a diet of reality TV — were playing themselves, that however real their experiences, they were amping them up for the camera.

That’s pretty much par for the course for Generation Facebook; central to youth experience in the West these days is the breakdown between the public and private spheres of life. The idea of an honest, unguarded moment being captured by a camera will seem a quaint one in but a few more years. We are all actors, now, with the savvy to turn it on when the red record light is flashing. Our private lives become infected by artificiality, by performance, as mediated experience infects “real life.”

Born into Brothels
Director Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
Run Time 85 minutes
Language Bengali, English

But that’s the West. For an example of the other extreme, see “Born Into Brothels,” a documentary by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, which explores the lives of children whose mothers are prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district. This is a hard place to film, where — as Briski notes in the film — “everyone’s terrified of the camera, afraid of being found out. Everything they do is illegal.” Their privacy is deliberately maintained, out of fear, out of shame.

Briski lived in this dodgy neighborhood, intending to photograph and document the lives of its sex workers, but instead found herself becoming entwined with their children. The kids, fascinated by their foreign neighbor, would come round to play, and Briski was inspired to teach them photography. She gave them cameras with the notion that she could “see this world through their eyes.”

“Born Into Brothels” follows Briski’s time in Calcutta, and the nine kids who became her most avid students, ranging in age from 10 to 14 years old. These kids have never heard of Facebook and never even used a camera before, but Briski proves to be a good teacher. The film is full of photos taken by the kids, many of them surprisingly good, capturing natural, unposed shots in the streets, from unlikely perspectives.

The filmmakers take a matter-of-fact look at the situation, entirely nonmanipulative, but the tragedy is never far from the surface. Ten-year-old Kochi’s photos are astounding, but, away from Briski’s class, we see her at home, scrubbing endless pots while her mom yells at her and puts on makeup to receive a client. In a quiet moment, she tells Briski: “I’m scared to grow up and become like my mom.” Another scene shows a group of kids cheerfully flying kites on the roof of their building; the reality is, that’s where they must stay while their mother is working in the bedroom.

For the most part, the kids — unlike American teens — don’t want to reveal all to the camera. They have a natural shyness that hasn’t yet been seduced by the prospect of 15 minutes of fame. We hear things about them from their friends and neighbors: Avijit, Briski’s most talented student, has a father who’s a drug addict, while his mother dies in a mysterious fire; Suchitra is on the cusp of being sold to johns herself. The gap between these bright, lively, playful kids on screen, and the depressing fates that await them, is incredibly poignant.

Briski (Kauffman remains behind the camera) faces a dilemma common to all documentary filmmakers: Should she remain an observer, merely recording the story, even in the face of tragedy? Or should she choose to get involved, becoming part of the story? The director’s morality trumps her objectivity, and she ends up on screen, trying to get some of the kids into schools (which is hard given their untouchable caste status), and arranging photo exhibitions of their work.

The frustrations of Indian bureaucracy and the quicksand effect of slums conspire against her, though. Unlike a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, however, Briski’s film is clearly about the kids, and not her. It’s interesting to note how much more we trust someone who isn’t comfortable in the spotlight.

For a documentary, “Born Into Brothels” displays a refreshingly artistic and atmospheric style. The filmmakers’ shots of Calcutta’s gaudy but filthy streets and constant bustle burn with the vibrancy of cinematographer Chris Doyle’s early work (circa “Chungking Express”). The kids photographs are displayed prominently, along with Briski’s, and they prove that art is not a product of class or refinement, but rather a way of looking at the world. And, most importantly for these kids, they learn that being able to view your environment in a different way is the first step to changing it.