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]