Born Into Brothels

Yesterday something happened which I thought I would never ever get a chance to experience–
watching on Cable TV (Cinemax) in US, about 2 minutes of uninterrupted Bengali abuse (technically called “Kancha Khisti” ) of the type that would make the legendary milk-vendor (gowala) of Santoshpur named Dulu (he was a legend for his innovative swear words) cringe.

I was watching “Born Into Brothels” —Zana Briski and Ross Kaufmann’s Oscar-winning documentary about kids born into the red-light region of Calcutta—-which one reviewer describes as the “nearest thing to hell on earth”.

If you wade through this blog post, you will realize how conflicted I am about Zana Briski–on one hand I want to congratulate her for the enormous good work she has done in helping these children and on the other hand berate her for exploitive filmmaking.

First the bad. Zana Briski comes across as the stereotypical savior white woman here, an angel of mercy redeeming the souls of the poor natives. She is younger than Mother Teresa and looks better than Patrick Swayze. Which is good.

While she is not battling ugly bureaucrats and other assorted demons, Zana Briski is a photojournalist. Her theme is innovative—-she gives 7 unfortunate children cameras and asks them to document their world. She also tries to get them admitted to schools.
That makes for some compelling TV as she grapples with native administrators and fulminates in righteous anger as to how pathetic our “Indian system” is , with an eye on the camera.

Zana Briski is everywhere. The movie comes across as “Look at how the European woman is saving the souls of bottom-feeding Indians.” All the good, noble characters (her and the principal of a school) are Europeans. The bad ones (except the children) are naturally Indians picking up on a theme of “City of Joy”—-Indians are the Indians’ worst enemy….only outsiders of the European variety really care. In the process she ignores all the amazing social work that is being done by Indians in Sonagachi.

For a movie about the children of prostitutes, a lot of time is spent lovingly focusing on her own tireless crusade——Ms Briski is a thinner version of Michael Moore—thrusting herself everywhere in her documentary.

No I am not being mean. It’s not about Ms Briski only. Whenever she finds some stereotypical squalor, her camera is there to pick it up.

A toddler tied to a chain———–Click
A pimp catatonic with drugs——-Click
A slanging match between two prostitutes with each nuance of their colorful language being translated into English—-Click, click and click
One of the children on her way to Digha getting nauseous and vomiting from the side of the bus—Clicks galore.

I really missed a shot of a bandaged leper—–was expecting that somewhere.

A child of a prostitute, bitter at the world and the surroundings around him says words to the effect—-” Nowhere on earth do people live as dirtily as we do. No other country in the world is as miserable”.

I understand the child—-brought up in Sonagachi with his mother servicing clients while he flies kites, it is extremely natural for him to feel so embittered. But really he has not seen the “world” in anyway———but “Zana Aunty” prominently uses that in the documentary to get the obvious point across.

There have been other controversies regarding the movie with the interpreter for the Sahebs Partha Banerjee raising several issues. However there was one point I particularly share with him and one that I made earlier—-never was any attempt made to show the heroic efforts of Indians in Sonagachi—-the fact that Sonagachi is acknowledged as one of the world’s most organized sex worker communities is suppressed.

Read this. (link courtesy Saumyadipta)

Of course you can argue that her focus was not on Sonagachi but on the children. But then can you tell me , why in the passport office does her camera linger on the huge dumps of files stacked on shelves if not to point out our backwardness in not having computers ? Can you tell me why she devotes almost 30 seconds in showing an administrative worker using her creaky old typewriter?

By the way, who chose the background music? An accented Iskcon chant, songs from “Mohabbatein”, an uncredited lift from Satyajit Ray…….(I hope this is the last time I mention Satyajit Ray and Mohabbatein in the same sentence)

Now the good. Zana Brisky’s efforts are titanic. Whatever be her motivation, noone can deny the importance of what she has done.

But the way she brightens her halo by crafting a one-sided, disingenuous look at Calcutta, India and the hapless parents of these kids is the only discordant note running through “Born Into Brothels”.

However everything is forgotten once the camera is focused on the children as they pour out their experiences. It’s not hyperbole—-you will be entranced, unable to look away.

Raised in a dehumanizing atmosphere (like children of prostitutes all over the world—not merely in Calcutta or India) , their attempt to hold onto their innocence and dreams against all odds is bound to break the hearts of even the most cynical among us.

There are so many moments when you would wish that it would be possible to reach into the screen and hug them—–like when one of them, with weary old eyes far beyond the child’s years, says plaintively that life is all about pain.

Or when the most talented photographer, Avijit selected to go to Amsterdam and sitting in the back seat of a taxi which is driving a bit too fast for his liking says—

“Please drive slowly, I won’t get there if there is an accident. I won’t fulfill my dreams”

These children never cry out for pity. Or help. Their courage, dignity, maturity and innocence radiate through ever frame.


Let me conclude by saying that the work that Zana Brisky has done is amazing. Her concern for these children is undeniably genuine and her work truly missionary (in the positive sense) in its zeal. The criticism leveled against her by some Indians that that her work did not lead to the rehabilitation of all the kids is an unfair one…….the fact that she could extricate even one of these children from doom is a reason to be thankful to her. Even if all her effort had come to naught, it would still be a staggering achievement.

My issue is the way the movie, with an eye to the Oscars and more awards, plays upto the stereotypes that Westerners have about us—often going out of her way to show how horrible Calcutta is. She shows surprise when she is informed that none of the kids are HIV positive. What she does not show—-prostitutes of Sonagachi are very aware of AIDs and consistently refuse services to clients who decline to use protection. But it wont serve her purpose to talk about this.

Despite all the things I found jarring, I unhesitatingly recommend that you see “Born Into Brothels” if only to witness how true beauty exists in the most unlikely of places.

[PS Please visit this site for some beautiful pictures taken by these children and to find out how you too can help]

49 thoughts on “Born Into Brothels

  1. Saw BiB when it released in Chicago, and I think your review took the words out of my mouth. Those were EXACTLY the feelings I experienced while watching it. My friend and I were the only Indians in the audience, and I couldn’t help but cringe when shots of a crowded Brabourne Road drew gasps of horror from other audience members.

    I think a friend of mine summed it up correctly – “Prothom City of Joy elo, aar shobai bhablo je Kolkata ekta bishal bosti, tarpor elo Mother Teresa aar shobai bhablo je Kolkata ekta bishal shashanghaat. Ekhon shobai bhabbe je Kolkata ekta bishal rondikhana.”

  2. Welcome to the West! Many Western filmmakers have been known to do this, and India is not the only developing country at the receiving end of the “Thank God we live in the United States; think about how hard our lives would be if we lived in India/China/(plug in your favorite third world country here)” series of movies. Another recent example (other than the one you point out) is Maria Full of Grace, where the filmmakers trash the Columbians. Give me a break ! The United States is not the only part of the world where people are happy!

  3. A good review. I haven’t watched BiB as yet but I imagined it to be something like this only… especially after City of Joy.

  4. some indian should make a documentary on how a divorced bob is drinkin beer & beatin up his children where an raju patel is taking his job away & drivin a bran new mercedez in the land of the free

  5. Has BiB been released in India?

  6. Arnab,
    I have been reading your blog for some time but this post was simply awesome! I haven’t seen the docu yet but the way you have written it makes me want to go run and grab a copy to see. Thank you…for bringing this out so beautifully.

    -Dark Green Tendrils

  7. This post has been removed by the author.

  8. Have any of you seen Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies ? For a look into the brighter side of the prostitutes’ lives watch it or read this:
    And Arnab, this Anglo fettish for projecting a poor Kolkata is, I guess, an outcome of the We ruled them for 200 years and broke their backbones mentality. But honestly, don’t really know who to blame: them or us?
    There are prostitute colonies in Mumbai, Goa, Delhi, UP, all over India …why doesn’t anyone film them? Just coz they don’t bear the name Sonagachi? I’m sure their stories will also be as intriguing, if not more, than the SGites.
    For once, I think Shakespeare should eat humble pie for saying “What’s in a name?”

  9. @Gamesmaster….Precisely ! With the amount of PR dear Mother Teresa did for Kolkata, it will be some time before we can outlive our image—-Buddhadev has decided to ban handdrawn rickshaws as a step towards that.

    @Anon1 and Anon3: I think this lady is British….but yes it is true of Western powers in general that their “feel good” comes saying :” Look how better we live. Look how we are the only ones who care.”

    @Anon2: Thank you
    Take the son of a crack whore who walks the streets of Chicago and I am sure you will hear the same story.

    @Shivaji—No it has not. And it wont be. Official reason–to protect the identity of the sex workers.

    @Dark Green Tendrils—It is definitely worth seeing let me repeat that. And thanks for your appreciation.

    @Priya–No I had not. Yes as you say the name is everything. Kolkata has such a brand equity as the “worst place on earth” (thanks to St you-know-who) that no other city in the world can beat us. And if you are fishing for awards, why settle for second best—come to Kolkata?

  10. i quite agree with what you have to say. i worked with a girl sometime ago who knew these children firsthand, and she was delighted at first at the idea of giving these kids cameras and letting them shoot. but before we give out prizes for innovative thinking, let me point out (though i am sure you know) photography is prohibited in sonagachhi. they’ll break your camera if you try, and plenty else besides. so this was the only way she had of shooting.

    however, i hear there was a special viewing of the finished product for them (i really cannot vouch for this) and it ruffled a few feathers…

  11. Saumyadipta Pyne August 18, 2005 — 10:53 am

    Zeroth, very good that you wrote this blog.

    First, here’s a link to more real –
    and serious business.

    Second, I haven’t watched the movie; so no comment on
    the materials (what, how, …) here.

    Third and final, well, life’s good, bad and ugly perceptions
    are often outwardly processed from within a great variety of
    limited concepts: cultural-/temporal-/geographically limited.

    Unless the agent of change (particularly in terms of perception)
    evolve from or align with the complex continuum of life patterns
    under consideration, it is plain and simple dishonest.

    One’s “well-meaning” intentions are hardly sufficient, but
    perhaps fairly necessary. A great couple of “Freeing of Sex
    Slaves” features –
    by Nicholas Kristof of NY Times

  12. When ‘City of Joy’ was shot in Cal in ’94, I wondered why there was such a fuss. Then in ’01 I saw it on TV in the US and my blood boiled, because I realised that viewers would think that was a true depiction of my city.

    I sadly suspect the lady just hit on a good idea to get into SG and make a film. From all accounts, she was NOT popular with the mothers of the children she ‘benefitted’. Rimi’s recollections are correct.

    And Ani? In Bangla, it’s more likely to be pronounced ‘rEndi’ than ‘rOndi’. (cf: Kole-kah-thah and Kawl-kaw-ta)



  13. I have to see the movie. Actually ,I am a little scared to see this movie… so avoid korchilam …kintu akhon dekhbo.

  14. do read francois gauthier’s ( take on rewriting indian history. that will give u insights to the way the western mind wishes to percieve India.

  15. hehe,seems like gr8bong shifted to social issues, as much as like ur posts, this is something else

    i really like ‘real movies’, for they tend to get closer to reality than we can sometimes fathom, santosh sivan with navarasa, for eg. But when a phirang makes a movie on india, they cant help but get a shot of the naked boys bathing at a lake, the naga sadhus, the cows on the roads, and yeah the top of the tops, the snake charmers

    yes every1 wants awards, why does shahrukh do his crappy roles with his shitty voice. Its not abt the awards, its the message and the imprint that a movie leaves, lagaan was a gem, a complete movie, which makes u feel indian’ and a proud one too.

    these movies touch sensitive issues of majboori and lawlessness, while the govt may o may not approve, think for people like me, it makes for good cinema, for we cant live a world and the journey of poverty, something alien to us

    so if i get a chance, will love to see the movie with some cal frds of mine to see how good it is

  16. I have been reading your blog for quite some time. I realize how well and smoothly you write because I am not very good at collecting my thoughts for posting comments. But there is always a first time – so I am going to try.
    I have not seen BIB but have seen “Mondo meyer Upakhyan” by Buddhodeb Dasgupta which I am told is based on a true story. Have you seen it?
    It is about a well meaning prostitute who is making arrangements for fixing up her beautiful teenaged daughter with a ‘barolok bandha khodder’( rich permanent client) so that her daughter does not have to worry about uncertainty regarding money and uncertainty regarding behavior(sexual and day to day) of different clients. The story is set in a village. The teenager is good at studies and wants to continue her studies but her mother won’t allow that lest the rich client does not want to wait and takes another girl. The teenager’s aged school teacher (who gets transferred to Calcutta) inspires her to study further. The teenager secretly leaves her house for further studies in Calcutta, thus embraces uncertain future over “certain future”!
    This type of movies does not make much of a great impact in the Western world because there is no shaeb/memshaeb’s benevolence for the girl – the girl’s school teacher inspires her!
    What I don’t understand is why the Westerners think that the children of the prostitutes in their countries are in any better shape (mental or physical or social)! It is the same story all over the world for the children of prostitutes. They may say that the children in US/UK have better facilities for going to school and thus improve their lot. True but the saddest part is that their mothers are too stoned to care whether they are going to school or not or whether they are having food to eat. At least in the third world, poorest mothers including prostitute mothers don’t abandon their kids and feed their kids first.

  17. Great attempt, for an equally damming look at Mumbai, u should check out Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City”

    If they show heroic attempts at life in India, that would not sell. Everyone wants to see the helpless, the hungry, if a film-maker makes a movie where a rural Indian makes it big, that is not news. It is a sad commentary on western people that they feel they have “achieved” something if they watch such movies.

    Your flow of words is terrific, keep it up !!

  18. @Rimi….the parents come off in very poor light..let me tell you that. No wonder they didnt like the finished product.

    @Spyne….The bbc link is truly illuminating.

    @JAP….now that you have properly spelt the word…my google hits go up.

    @Sd.please do

    @Blokes…Gautier is sometimes a bit too unbalanced imho…

    @almost_useless…you too…do see it.

    @your(my)fan: First designating yourself as a fan is an honor for me…

    I abs agree with you…conditions of children of crack whores and streetwalkers in US are much worse than those of the children shown in the movie—many of the children of Sonagachi can write English (in beautiful handwriting) and understand quite a bit of it….despite it being a foreign language.[And this skill is acquired from their “Indian” education as opposed to the European run institution Zara Aunty gets them admission in]

    Would like to see children of prostitutes in US show such mastery over a foreign language.

    Havent seen Mondo Meyer Upakhan…is on my list of to-dos.

    @GHE…Agree totally…and thanks.

  19. saw the photos through the link you provided. were beautiful.

  20. Very relevant post and a stimulating discussion. Only regrets are that I was unable to understand the third point of Soumyadipta Pyne. Will anyone oblige my by deciphering the point?

  21. Sorry the fourth point (his counter started off at zero).

  22. @Akash, May just be links….very tangentially relevant to the discussion but worth checking out nonetheless if you have not

  23. Arnab,

    I have been reading your post for some time, its amazing how you articulate the thoughts.. great man. I have not seen the film in review but you summed it well.. its pathetic when western looks for cliches in whatever indian and seems to look like saviour.

    I also appreciate for bringing in the positive aspect of the film
    —remaining part edited by blog owner—

  24. Zulfi,

    Thanks for your appreciation. Your post has been edited because you made a particularly serious accusation about me which was “off topic”. I do not shy away from it but the proper place for replying to it is not in the comments section of a movie review. I have posted my comments on your blog under a relevant post—if you think its not approp. I can reply by mail.

  25. I haven’t seen BiB yet, but a copy just arrived from Netflix, so I’ll be seeing it soon.

    As a gori (who’s been lucky enough to have been to India and Sri Lanka several times, and also to Latin America and West Africa), after reading your blog and the subsequent comments, I gotta jump in.

    You ask “…why in the passport office does her camera linger on the huge dumps of files stacked on shelves if not to point out our backwardness in not having computers ? Can you tell me why she devotes almost 30 seconds in showing an administrative worker using her creaky old typewriter?”

    To point out bureaucratic inefficiency maybe? Though my experience with the Indian consulate in NYC has been nothing but pleasant, if you’ve been reading India Abroad in the past year, you will recall that your fellow countrymen themselves have howled over the poor service they received there, over and over. That’s what a journalist does, isn’t it? Shine a light on things that are not quite right in the hope of shaking things up.

    As you will have seen on blogs in India, there was a massive outcry from Indian citizens about their own government allowing conditions to exist that made the deadly rains in Bombay as lethal as they were. It’s not a secret that, well, yes, there is a bit of a bureaucracy problem in India. Would you deny that? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a condemnation on my part of the nation of India, how stupid would that be. I’m just repeating what I’ve heard again and again from Indian friends and read so much about in India media.

    On the whole white-people-love-to-look-at-brown-people’s-misery-and-feel-superior thing, hmmm, I don’t know about that. I seem to recall TV and newspapers in the US having a field day whenever there’s one of these child abuse stories about drug addicts or just plain old garden variety screwed up people who live in complete squalor, with lots of details of the feces all over the house and the kids in the midst of it.

    So why cover, write about, film these stories? I think in some part, people are fascinated to see parts of the world they may never set foot in during their whole lives, even if it’s not all gleaming shiny happy people and Swiss watch efficiency on screen. Ok, I’m sure some people do see the poverty in Calcutta or Bombay or Bangkok as proof that God loves them, the Bible-toting, God-fearing Americans better than the brown heathens, but I think that’s a minority, certainly among people who would go to a cinema or rent BiB, or Salaam Bombay.

    Also, people see something like BiB and do want to act and are often spurred on to do something, either by donating money or something more.

    Which brings me to something else. What about Salaam Bombay or Pixote, both movies made by people about their own people/countries/cultures? Ok, Salaam Bombay is a movie, but how far from reality was it? Pixote the same; in fact they used many homeless kids in that movie. Is it only ok for “natives” to show the seamy underside (or the bloated bureaucracy, as it were)? If a white person does it, does he or she have to use a 2 to 1 ratio, showing at least 2 positive things about the subject/country/culture for every 1 negative thing shown?

    And for Anonymous who talked about “María Full of Grace”, please give ME a break! María had a rather nice life in Colombia, lived in a quiet, small town, and had the same existence as many bored teenagers around the world. She got into financial difficulty because she became pregnant and didn’t want to replicae the difficult life her sister had, and that’s why she left to come north: economic reasons. It’s not like she was living in squalor back home.

    And what did she come to? I remember scenes of a NYC/Queens of cramped, dark apartments (which is very true to life and not very pretty), walking around Jackson Heights, which is colorful and has a great mix of nationalities there, but which I don’t think will win any aesthetic awards either, and some grungy motel room. Welcome to los Estados Unidos.

    Arnab, sure, where it’s merited, complain about India being misrepresented by the white press or filmmakers (how can you take City of God seriously anyway, with Patrick Swayze as a – GAG – doctor????), but I think also, if you’ll forive me for generalizing, sometimes the reaction is more sensitive than is merited.

    Ok, I’ve said my bit. It’s late and I don’t know how cogent I’ve been. Enjoying your blog. A guy who’s got Govinda’s picture on his page has got my vote.

  26. @Olinda,

    Thanks for taking time out to write a detailed comment.

    There is a whole lot of redtape in India and I agree 100% with you that bureaucratic inefficiency exists in India—but no more so than most countries in the world. BIB’s focus is not Indian bureaucracy—-my objection is why should the director go off topic in order to show something uncomplimentary if not to further another hidden agenda?

    Say I am a director who wants to make a movie about bloggers. So I come to you and say I am going to follow you 24 hours and film everything—to show how a blogger’s life is. But when you see the movie, you see that I have lovingly shown, in slow motion, you picking your nose or how many each spelling mistakes you made while blogging——if that was the case then you could rightfully argue that my motive was not to show your blogging but to show that you are a slob. However it still would be a documentary.

    (I am not saying you are a slob or pick your nose 🙂 —this is just an example)

    And as to Deepa Mehta and Meera Nair…a lot of us Indians dont really consider them to be Indian moviemakers—I would put Zana Brisky many levels above these two.

    As to the US media coverage of their own filth, let me differ. The Anacostia suburbs in DC are considered to be among the worst areas of US where a very high number of people do not live above 35 (drugs and street violence claim them). If Anacostia existed in any non-Caucasian country in the world, it would have run the risk of being called “Hell on Earth”….however since its in DC…its “ok”.

    When an American teenager vanishes in Aruba, MSNBC says dont send your kids to Aruba. Fox says (I saw this myself)—We all know that “everyone down there are liars”. There are so many teenagers vanishing in US/UK/Europe….how come no one refers to their government/country in such disparaging terms?

    I havent seen Maria Full of Grace so I cant comment.

    However in countless movies, I have seen this “better than you” attitude that permeates the entire story structure–BIB is one such.

    Yes and you can never go wrong with Govinda.

  27. Arnab,

    I don’t know if your other readers will find this as interesting to talk about as I (and perhaps you?) do, and if you want to take it backchannel I’d be more than glad to, but let me just go back to that point about the US press pointing to glaring problems in US society… today’s NY Times had a cover story on the head of the police department in Baltimore and how he’s tried, over and over, to help his step-daughter, who is a drug addict and prostitute, and how he’s grappling with the rampant drug use and related problems of that city.

    Last week they did a cover story on how badly people are treated in hospitals, as medical conditions or pieces of meat rather than human beings.

    I think TV here also goes for that “gotcha” mentality and actually shows little more than examples of people misbehaving or worse.

    On the Aruba thing, I think it’s received way more attention than it should have, but in this day and age, where teens go on spring break outside of the US and get up to all sorts of trouble, to say nothing of all those Girls Gone Wild DVDs, I can see why some people, parents for example, would find this story perversely fascinating, not unlike the Australian press coverage of two people in jails in East Asia on drug charges. Come to think of it, even India Abroad covers desis who’ve run into trouble with the law here…

    As for the attitude of ‘those people are liars’ (in Aruba), I’d consider that actually white-on-white hate, as Aruba is part of the Kingdom of Netherlands, but yes, I get what you’re saying. But really, don’t we all feel vulnerable when we’re facing the legal or state bodies of a country other than our own?

    What if BiB had been made by an Indian and showed the same things? Would you be equally upset?

    I have to ask….would you agree that there is a lot of smug superiority in mainstream Indian films?

    I saw the Tamil movie “Priyasakhi” two weeks back and was struck by the brickbats that rained down on “Western” (read American) culture. Madhavan, from a comfortable, traditional, extended SI family, marries a wealthier Vesterized girl, a model, and wow, you should’ve seen her family. The mother was an overbearing harpy who wore age-inappropriate clothes, fed the family Dalmation at the dinner table, drank like a fish, partied hard and had her husband totally whipped (of course, in the end, he rises up and slaps her hard, not once, but thrice). The movie was about the culture clash between the couple and their families, and the message you took away was “traditional Indian ways are best and must be protected from evil West and its dangerous influence”. And this idea – brown trumps white every time because of some inherent nobility or purity – gets played out in so many movies, over and over (Pardes, Kisna, to name a few), and I find it sad, because these are mainstream movies and send a divisive, inaccurate message to people, who might not have the opportunity to go the US and see for themselves what the people are like.

    One interesting exception was Swades. I was struck by the scene where Shahrukh Khan’s character, living in a rural village in India while on a break from his job in the US at NASA (!?! that’s as improbable as Keanu Reeves playing a doctor) is invited by the elders to some village event. When he’s there, one of the elders says “Americans have no culture” and, fair play to the writers, SRK’s character counters with “That’s not true, they do have a culture, it’s just different from ours.”

    I do appreciate having read your comments, as I’ll watch BiB being alert to see if I agree with what you perceptions are, or not.

  28. I watched “Born Into Brothels” a few weeks ago. I loved it – Its a documentary set in the Calcutta red light area, Sonagachi. It was shot by an American woman who has lived in the brothel, on and off for the last several years.

    The brothel, of course, looked horrible. It was filthy, there were junkies eveywhere, the women used foul language in front of their children and there was no escape route for the children. Most of the girls ended up becoming prostitutes and the boys became pimps/junkies.

    The American lady, who is a photographer by profession, started making friends with the children of the prostitutes and ultimately ended up teaching them photography. I was amazed at how talented each of the kids was with the camera.

    The movie, in spite of its theme was quite upbeat and at the end of the movie, I was quite happy rather than being sad as I expected to be. I thought that the overall treatment of Calcutta and India was quite fair overall – There was no attempt to show India as being anymore dirty than it is, or the government being any slower than it is.

    And then I read this blog post, by “Great Bong”, and although he attempted to project an image of being extremely neutral and objective, it was clear that he was upset with the way the movie portrayed Calcutta. I love the way he talks about everything but the core issue – Starving, struggling people.

    In his post, he accuses Zana Briski, the photographer of deviating from the main subject in order to focus on the bad things. He also says that the movie comes across as “Look at how the European woman is saving the souls of bottom-feeding Indians.” “All the good, noble characters (her and the principal of a school) are Europeans.”

    So, my questions are …

    1. So what if she focuses on the bad things ?
    2. Why are Indians so defensive ?
    3. Why are we analyzing Ms. Briski’s motivation ?
    4. Should the world see our poverty and squalor ?

    Lets face it – India although the greatest country, has countless problems – That doesnt mean we need to walk away from it or give up on it – But, that is the truth. And the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it.

    Indians need to stop being so defensive about the country – Especially, the well educated, well fed ones – Whose only concern is that pictures of the true India – Dirt and filth will spoil their opportunities to sell BPO solutions or will necessitate them to answer tough questions during pseudo-intellectual cocktail sessions at Harvard.

    Screw that !
    India needs change, a lot of it.
    India needs help and a lot of it.

    And if the way to get help is to come out with the begging bowl and show the ugly underbelly, so be it.

    And, why are we worried about Ms. Briski’s motivation ? Its not even relevant to the starving millions in India – A much larger issue is the attempt by the affluent in India to brush the poor under the “India is Shining” carpet.

    India is progressing, but we are in no way shining. And we need to acknowledge that – That would make us powerful.

    Can these pseudo intellectuals promise to eradicate poverty ? Can they feed everybody who needs food tonight ? Guarantee that nobody will starve or shiver to death tonight ?

    If they can’t, then they need to shut up and let Zana Briski or anybody who chooses, to do their charity work unheeded and uncommented upon – If you can help, help. If not, let others help, no matter what their motivation is and even if it means that you are forced to search your conscience and makes you feel like a traitor.

    Have you saved anybody from a brothel ?
    Zana Briski has.

    Update: I posted this link as a comment on “Great Bong’s” blog and he promptly deleted it.

  29. Which begs the question: why is it still up here if I deleted it ideamani?

    Despite the fact that you kept the update (which now makes no sense–but hey sense is not that important to you) you declined to say why I removed your original comment.

    But that’s only to be expected from you.

  30. Interestingly enough, there was a similar programme in Washington DC, called Shooting Back, that was also chronicled in a documentary.

  31. My parents are originally from Calcutta and I lived there from the time I was 20-22. (I am now 30) The only memories I have of that God-forsaken city are of poverty and filth. If you want Westerners to stop making films about poverty in India, then do something about the poverty.

  32. @Pagal Pandu…your name represents your opinion so well that I wont even deign to speak further.

  33. Depicting India as a colourful and wonderful place wouldn’t get a documentary any place but some travel show would it?
    Its understandable that she was biased in her lens view…
    Its not the untruth, just a selective potrayal of the part of India we can’t be proud of…

    BUT it would be good if she spends a part of the profit she makes on the upliftment of those kids.

    Nice Blog BUT Looooong posts

    PS: I hate word verification

  34. Well Prahathalan….I have a lot of things to say and hence “long” posts….and word verification is essential considering the comment spam I have been getting (to the tune of 32 spam comments per post in about an hour)

  35. I recently saw BiB, and I think Zana Brisky is brilliant. I don’t see her at all as the “thinner version of Micheal Moore” or some European saint. She came across more as woman who knew what she wanted and achieved it. She’s an achiever. PERIOD. How could such a devastating situation as that in Sonagachi be portrayed in such a light as a fairytale story in a documentary. look at the opportunities that were given to the children, at least they were given a better opportunity to break the cycle of prostitution even if at the end they opted otherwise. Zana Brisky achieved what another Indian or any other person of nationality didn’t in Sonagachi. Its difficult to understand why Indians feel embittered about the film, when the essence of it is to make the impoverished children feel better about their situation- not the proud viewer who knows more about Patrick Swayze’s facial features than development.

  36. @Midvale: Typical Western smugness and ignorance. There are people who have accomplished MUCH MUCH more than Zana Brisky in Sonagachi…..except that they dont play upto the camera as shamelessly as she does.

    Put away your blinkers—Europeans/Americans arent really our saviours. Never were. Never will.

  37. Your reviews and comments are so awesome!! I am adding your website to my “favorites” list. I just saw BIB on DVD from Netflix. I just can’t get over the foul language that the women used.Did you notice how the parents did not seem ashamed of the lifestyle that they lead? No one seemed to realize their poor choices keep them there.No one seems to be trying to improve their living conditions.

  38. GB, how do you know Dulu ghosh from Santoshpur….

  39. That’s really a great work….Thanks a Lot Zana Brisky.

  40. A documentary on progressing India or China has no value in western media except the effect shrinking jobs in the west.So these filmmakers chose the easy way of selling poverty and dirt which generally remains under the curtain in their cities.I have spent 3 years in San Francisco and even that beautiful city has so many homeless people.I have found even today how blacks are looked down upon by many in the corporate world.Alas!why asians are not making many movies on the blacks.

  41. GB, on the subject of Ray’s music being used in BiB (“…an uncredited lift from Satyajit Ray…”) when this movie had won an award at Sundance in Jan of 2004, I had mentioned it to the head of the Satyajit Ray Film Archive at the University of California at Santa Cruz, & he said that he had “helped the filmmakers choose three minutes of music from Apu Trilogy for BiB”. That doesn’t explain why it was uncredited though.

  42. On this subject of the Theresa-fication of Calcutta, I was watching the new movie musical ‘Rent’ & there is a line in the ‘La Vie Boheme’ number, where a character reminds the other starving artists not to get too hopeful about where they are – “This is Calcutta/ Bohemia is dead”. Ouch!

  43. I feel that westerners will always feel better when they see the squalor as it is the way the country actually is.Why should we be so pricky about the sonagachi exposure when we are least concerned as sitting in our Air conditioned enclosure as to how they live and what they do? People throw stones at glass houses.Now, If we build our society as a glass house then we should be better prepared as to recieve some stones sometimes.So, cheer up.Build the society to make it a better world even if it means in disgust.

  44. I saw the movie – I think it was great. Lots of comments here about Zana Briski. Yes, someone can comment that it does not tell the full story of Kolkata – but that does NOT bother me. I will watch more than 1 movie, and I will read more than 1 book. But the fact remains – there is squalor and misery in some parts of the city, and this ONE artist decided to make a beautiful story out of it. Thanks to her for what she did – and showcasing what exists. At least more people are aware – and that’s always a good thing.

  45. On an aside, remember the Japanese tourist in Munnabhai MBBS who wanted pictures of “real India, poor people, hungry people”?

    That’s pretty much the way the world approaches it , I guess. Hence the guided tours of Dharavi, and so forth.

    I’d be foolish to say there’s nothing wrong with the way we live, or that it should not be shown to the world. But sometimes it does get a little out of hand.

  46. I’m new here.. just wanted to say hi!

  47. “By the way, who chose the background music? An accented Iskcon chant, songs from “Mohabbatein”, an uncredited lift from Satyajit Ray…”

    GB, Ray is credited in the DVD version I watched last year. Have been meaning to send you this screenshot for some time –

    Btw, there is an Australian movie playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, about a couple wanting to adopt a child from Calcutta (Claire McCarthy’s Waiting City)

    I wonder how the “bureaucratic snags” they hit compare with the scene in BiB (a scene I liked btw).

  48. i lived where she worked for a long time and it is that bad–also that good-its a contrast. you need to chill out and understand that the slums arent an easy place to be–the toddler on chains is better than the ones that arent; the ones that run free alone! i saw many things worse than what was in her film so i dont think she did any harm…

  49. I know of a Lady(I cant give her name as she does not appreciate it ) in Mumbai who is selflessly devoting her time to educating the children who are born in brothel, and same from last 10-a5 years without taking help from any NGO/ Govt aid.

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