Pursued as a hobby, serving as my passion, photography has indeed changed me. The real understanding though, of the power of those captured moments came only after I saw this documentary. Mentioned as an Oscar nominated and Academy award winning film, Born into Brothels is not just one film you see to get a peek into the lives of the children living in Red light areas of Kolkata, it is their lives through their own point of view.
I stumbled upon the documentary one evening, while going through random titles on the Youtube to while away the time. I was bored. I clicked on the link and the film started to buffer. While I noticed the year 2004 and the name of the award Academy award, my expectations indeed got heightened. As a person I have always been interested in documentaries, their making as I look upon it as brothers and sisters of photography and writing. All ways of expression.
The documentary starts with a common beginning which every documentary on social issues has. An introduction on the dire need of making the documentary, the harsh, unfriendly surroundings of a red light area, Sonagachi in Kolkata. But soon I realised the purpose of the caption ‘Born into brothels’, the documentary is through the eyes of the kids born in brothels. As the subjects Manik, Avijit, Shanti, Tapasi, Suchitra, Gour and a few more are introduced along with their family conditions you get attached to them, their behaviour, minute details o their habits through each other’s perspective, these cling to you throughout the film. These children share a unique bond, a bond many of us would yearn to have with our friends. As they say troubles make you stronger.
Coming to the documentary, a Good Samaritan named Zana Briski, tries to capture the moments with the kids while she teaches them the art of photography. Normally, and pardon me, even from my point of view, in the beginning I thought she is just serving a temporary purpose by teaching them photography. But as the film progresses you realise the bigger plan and then is when it strikes you, improving someone’s life is not through any stereotypical way as laid down by someone who did great things. Mother Teresa did it with nursing people selflessly and Zana Briski did it with photography.
Zana had been teaching photography to kids of Sonagachi on and off for three years, she gave them cameras, taught them how to use it, compositions, the technicalities and everything. I expected the kids to take it playfully as an amusement but what turned out to be awe inspiring photographs turned my perspective wayward and forced me to contemplate over my generalisations of the world. The children not only did take photographs with interest but with purpose. Depicting scenes on the streets of the area, taking photos of each other during the routine life, their houses, living conditions, the behaviour of people around them. Each of them had a purpose. As Manik puts it he wanted to ‘capture how they live their.’ Since he doesn’t like the filthy environment. The documentary reveals the story of each and every kid, their families and other conditions.
One thing that stands out in the documentary is the maturity of each kid. Each of them have a deep understanding of their own state, what their mothers do, why they do it, why they can not go study, why their living conditions are such and so on. Yet there is this childish glimpse on each of their faces, which you would want to preserve forever.
As the documentary progresses unveiling the various aspects of life of those born into brothels, the kids capture hundreds of moments which are all very precious. Each moment with a story.
Zana and the kids seem to share a bond which no one can understand probably. She doesn’t speak Bengali, they don’t understand English. Inspite of the translator being their always, these kids love their ‘Zana aunty’. Along with the kids, she chose some pictures and took them to Manhattan to be displayed and auctioned in exhibitions and that’s how they got featured in Amnesty Internationals calendar and so many more places. The agenda of this being raise funds for the kids so that they will be able to go to school. After this help started pouring in. A good Samaritan named Robert having a photo agency in New York came to teach the kids too. Avijit already known for his artistic skills and instincts was provided with an opportunity to visit Amsterdam as a representative from India to the World Press exhibition.
In the meanwhile Zana, after multitude of difficulties managed to get several kids into boarding schools and to procure passport for Avijit. The documentary shows the lack of rights of people living in Red light areas, they can’t get admission into schools, no legal documents on their name , they are regarded as criminals. Zana’s approach is simple, effective, bold and powerful throughout. You can see her smoothly mentoring the kids and yet she manages to get only the kids in the limelight. At the end of the documentary, the kids get a place to study, get a lot of exposure of the outside world. And there it is. The impact. Lives touched and Lives made better.
The documentary touched me in so many levels. It brought me to the understanding of being involved in a change. The power of capturing moments, the power of a simple idea and a strong purpose. I can say it for sure now, photography isn’t the same for me now and the idea of helping people too. A will, a tool and a good motive can turn the world topsy turvy for sure. Starting from a group of kids if this was to reach the millions of kids still living in the red light areas, our country would be a different place. Filmed in 2004, this documentary made me wonder where all these kids would be right now, in what state. Having looked it up, I find most of them have fared well. But a few relapsed into the unfortunate trade. Zana Briski has continued helping them in any way she could. She founded an initiative called ‘Kids with Cameras’ which runs on a similar idea in cities like Haiti, Jerusalem and Cairo.