Born into Brothels (2004) begins with a fitting image of moths fluttering around a single bulb, that hangs next to a grimy wall. It is a close up that gives the viewer a strong sense of what lies in the background: heat, dirt and hopelessness. This is Kolkata (Calcutta), India.
A little girl's large brown eyes are faded into an overhead scene of the red light district. Men with hard and bitter eyes walk by hopeful looking women. A little girl's voice says, "The men who enter our building are not so good. They are drunk. They come inside and shout and swear. The women ask me, 'When are you going to join the line?' "
The girl looks to be no more than 10. "They say it won't be long," she says. Black, white and gray images are shown of women hiding their faces. Huddled together, as if lost sheep who know they've been sold for market. Even from the images one can tell that none of them seem like they ever wanted it this way, but so it has become.
"The brothels are filled with children, they are everywhere," says Zana Briski, one of the film's producers, who lived in the brothels to more effectively photograph their inhabitants. And the kids took to Zana. They loved playing with her camera and taking pictures of her. They loved learning with images. There are several children that Briski focuses on for her work: Kochi, Shanti, Avijit, Suchitra, Manik, Gour and Puja.
Kochi squats and cleans a pot with some sort of slime green colored soapy substance. Her job is to clean for a little money. She mops twice a day and runs errands for the prostitutes up to about 11 at night. If they want curry or rice, she must give it to them. She wonders what she could become if she got an education.
Some of the prostitutes are married. But it does not seem that their husbands pool in any sustainable income, and drug and alcohol addictions are fairly prevalent. Sex is the reason any one of them eats. Prostitutes shout at each other as to who is the bigger whore while the children are given baths.
The bitterness and shame is constant, and when the youths who are all fairly good looking, straight postured kids, enter the streets to take pictures, they are not spoken to as children. They are spoken to as the offspring of prostitutes. Grown adults will bully them about where they supposedly really got their cameras from. When the women are so overwhelmed by social pressures and by the sadness of their own lives, it might be hard for them to be adults for their own children and protect them as they should, as they are so often fending for themselves.
Briski with her camera, is a huge relief to the community's kids. She works hard to get them into boarding schools. The paperwork to do so seems a never-ending ordeal that never really makes sense but somehow gets done. In the end and in real life, some of the children make it out of the world of prostitution. Some do not.
By Sarah Bahl