"Born into Brothels" is an uneasy film to watch, and when Showtime's Movie Channel broadcast it on 8th September as part of their World Cinema series I was pleasantly surprised that the network had chosen this Oscar winning documentary as part of their weekend special.
The film is, basically, about a project, undertaken by two film makers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, to teach photography to the children of prostitutes 'working' in Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district. This background information immediately puts a dampener because it suddenly becomes hard to imagine them as any other kids. One's perception gets clouded by a sense of the tragic that one, rightly assumes, to be the defining factor of these children's day to day existence in Sonagachi.
Most of the children show great enthusiasm in learning photography, and the way they squeal with delight when they examine the pictures they've shot is a pleasure to watch. And when they tease each other and boisterously pull each other's legs they come across as regular kids, and this becomes - at least, to me - somewhat unbearable.
It's not that I don't want them to be happy but the impression one gets is that these images of 'happiness' are temporary, and that in just few years time, each of these children, especially the little girls, will be introduced to the world of prostitution and all the sordid reality associated with it.
What comes across clearly - and the filmmakers have captured this fact beautifully and sensitively - is that these children are like any other kids anywhere in the world. It's only their background that makes all the difference almost like hamartia or 'tragic flaw' that one notices in Shakesepeare's tragic heroes.
One of the most moving bits in the film - and it was here that I felt I could watch the film no more - was when Zana Briski hunts for a suitable boarding school for these children but meets with no success. Most schools are reluctant to have children of prostitutes in their roster and have no qualms saying so. Zana's disappointment is obvious and one is left with rage at a ridiculous value system that would allow such cute little children's lives to be destroyed simply on the basis of that cowardly principle of 'what will people say.'
I wish I could have watched the entire film but it was hard for me to do so. I was drawn by the excited faces of the little children and, at the same time, repulsed by the life these kids could get sucked into, and which would, permanently, wipe off any traces of joy from their faces and their lives. In a sense, I felt, I was watching what was, perhaps - and I hope not - the last time that they would ever behave like children.
The terrible thing about movies like "Born into Brothels" or even Mira Nair's critically acclaimed "Salaam Bombay" is that they do a fantastic job in 'exposing' the miserable life of people living below the poverty line, but one is left with that nagging question - what next? Somehow, I feel, such films provide armchair causeratis with an excuse to rail against the system without having to get their hands dirty. Perhaps it's because film as a medium for entertainment and raising social consciousness seems a little odd to go with it. I am not saying that it shouldn't be, but fact remains that it's rarely done and so, I'm not sure, how many people do get affected by such images and want to do something about it.
But let me not complain and act fussy... it's good that such initiatives are made, and even if one person is motivated to upset the applecart after watching a film, then, it's all worth it. Because, after all, it takes only one person to start something... and history has proved this to be true.
Will I be that man, or will I pass the buck?