Background photographs by Amitava Shee












“Hero! Hero!” A little boy shouts from the top floor of a building in Calcutta’s infamous red light district. He runs down the stairs two at a time and out the door, where, waiting for him is a shiny new bicycle— A Hero cycle, the bike he’s always wanted but never dreamed he could own.

Photographer Zana Briski bought the bike for Gaur, one of the children featured in the film Born into Brothels after he translated for her one day in class. However, if you’re looking for this scene in the movie, don’t bother. It wasn’t filmed.

“We never did anything for the film,” says co- director Ross Kauffman. “The film was always secondary to the real work – trying to get these children out of the brothels.”

Briski, who had worked in India on stories of female infanticide and dowry death, was immediately drawn to the women who worked in the brothels. “I wanted to stay with them, live with them and understand their lives,” she narrates in the opening sequence of the film. “And of course, as soon as I entered the brothels I met the children.” Renting a room in a brothel, she stayed in the area off and on for about 2 years, gaining the trust and confidence of the women and their children.

As she got to know the children they expressed interest in learning photography.

“They wanted to learn how to use the camera,” says Briski, “that’s when I thought it would be great to teach them and to see this world through their eyes.”

Briski bought some point and shoot cameras and started giving photo lessons in the brothel. From these photo lessons emerged the story that would, one year later, form the heart of the film.

“The photography classes for the children started as an experiment” says Kauffman. “But the children were so good that Zana could actually sell their photos and use the money to fund efforts toward their education.” Briski ran photography classes every Saturday and taught eight children from the brothels how to compose, light, and look at the world through a lens.

The film shows Briski and her troupe of children on shoots, interspersed with images of the photographs that they take on these jaunts through their neighborhood and beyond. The children also speak in brief interviews about their hopes and fears. “If I could get an education I wonder what I could become,” says Kochi wistfully. As she washes pots and pans and carries buckets of water up flights of stairs, Tapasi remarks matter-of-factly, “one has to accept life as being sad and painful, that’s all.” The hard lives of these children form the backdrop against which their joy and enthusiasm for taking pictures is juxtaposed.

Although the interviews serve to highlight the children’s personal situations, the buoyancy of the film comes from watching their individual aesthetic and particular proclivities develop through their work. By looking at their photographs and contact sheets we get a sense of their unique personalities. “I take pictures to show how people live,” says Manik, a ten year old in the group. “That’s why I like photography. I want to put across the behavior of man.”

In a Garry Winogrand moment the children go on a shooting trip to the zoo and stare at the animals in captivity. The pictures they make, of haunted animals gazing through the bars, are telling of their own situations. They talk with sensitivity about each other’s lives but are unable to think of alternatives.

Puja, a child with an impish smile and an irrepressible sense of humor laughs as she describes the quirks of the team, “Kochi is shy with the camera. Avijit gets upset when anyone calls him fat.” The children are revealed as a group that genuinely cares for each other. With little stability in their home lives, they come together and form a strong unit that supports each other even as they tease and laugh at themselves and their fellow photographers. “One day I went to Puja’s house and saw her dad beat up her mom,” says Manik. “I wish I could take her away from here. When she grows up she will end up on the street.”

The film is structured around Briski’s efforts to get the children out of the brothels. The guiding force behind the film is Briski herself. “Zana was getting more involved with helping the kids, and through her struggles a story was emerging” says Kauffman. “Zana had to tell the story. She was creating it.” Briski approaches various schools, where she is told that no one would take the children of sex workers. “They have absolutely no opportunity without education,” laments Briski. “The question is can I find a good school that will take children of prostitutes.”

Briski is shown navigating the complicated hierarchy of Indian bureaucracy, trying to push paperwork through unwilling government officials who regard her with varying degrees of incredulity. One of the children shows remarkable promise and is invited to present his work in Amsterdam. Getting a passport for him proves nearly impossible.

These struggles, telling in themselves, reveal a harsher reality about the lives of these kids. As children of prostitutes, and therefore criminals, they are among the most disenfranchised in India. Without papers they are invisible, and can never rise above their circumstances. This is why Briski’s struggle to legitimize the children in the eyes of the law is so remarkable. With someone on their side these children can have hope for a future that does not involve prostitution.

“You should feel very proud,” says a photographer from New York, explaining to Avijit’s grandmother that her grandson has been selected to go to Amsterdam. “If you are pleased, so are we,” smiles the grandmother, humoring this white man from America. In the hermetic world of life in this Calcutta brothel, photography is child’s play, a luxury that only the rich can take afford to take seriously. But for these eight children, their photography is the ticket to a world beyond the claustrophobic life in the red light district. “Please drive slowly,” Avijit instructs the cab driver imperiously on the way to the airport. “I won’t get there if there’s an accident. I won’t fulfill my dreams.”

Their home life is shown without sentimentality, but also without judgment. We watch as the children are cursed at and curse back, watch their fathers drink and do drugs and occasionally choke up as they admit that they do not see a life for themselves outside of the brothel. “In our room there is a rod and from there we close the curtain, that way we don’t see anything that’s going on,” says one of the children. Their mothers come across as harsh and do not show much tenderness towards their children. “If there’s one thing I regret about the film,” Kauffman admits, “it’s that it doesn’t show how much the mothers really do love their kids. They just have a really hard time.”

In fact, the strongest mother figure in the film is Briski herself as she takes the children to interviews at various schools, accompanies them to the doctor for blood tests and, through her photography classes, teaches them a new way of looking at their world.

Beautifully shot and tautly edited Born into Brothels is not only moving emotionally, but also artistic and well articulated. The film, although centered around Briski’s photography classes, gains momentum from the children themselves. They are a force, and under Briski’s stern guidance they blossom into artists, able to critique their work and articulate their choices.

This blossoming is what makes the film an inspiring story of finding immense untapped creative potential in the most unlikely of places. Showing these children their own power and enabling them to create, for themselves, a bigger world is the greatest gift that Briski can give. And it is ultimately this gift and its transformative power that breathes life, vibrancy and spirit into this work.

Briski and Kauffman shot one hundred and seventy hours of footage that would subsequently be edited down into its current, compact eighty-three minute cut. The film took over three years to make. Funding didn’t come in until halfway through the film. Briski and Kauffman dated for six years – and broke up a year and a half into making this film. Both made sacrifices:

“Zana sacrificed her photography for three and a half years to work with the children,” says Kauffman. “She needs to go take pictures again.”

Kauffman seems weary, as, hunched over a Caesar salad at Time Café in New York, he talks about the year-long edit. “The biggest challenge for me in editing the film was striking a balance between Zana and the kids,” he says, “keeping it about the kids but having Zana tell the story was really the hardest part.” But his eyes light up as he acknowledges, “People feel really good after watching the film.”

Part of that comes from the children’s infectious enthusiasm and innate good nature that form the heart of the film. Part of it comes from Zana Auntie and Ross Uncle as they are called and their love and respect for the children. Part of it comes from watching the children prowl their familiar landscape with new intentions and a new vision, camera in hand. But the sum of this film is greater than its parts. This film is a force because it takes on a life of its own. The filmmakers, the children, their mothers and grandmothers all work in concert and reveal the hand of a greater entity that brought all these characters together to create a beautiful work of life.

“This is a good picture … we get a good sense of how these people live,” says Avijit, critiquing work at the World Press Photo forum in Amsterdam. “And although there is sadness in it, and although it’s hard to face we must look at it. Because it is truth.”

This eloquence is a leitmotif in the film. The children are, through their art, encouraged to assess their lives, by looking at them through the lens of an outsider. At the conclusion of the film, although not all the children are out of the brothel, one gets the sense that their lives are just a little bigger, and that their children will surely have a greater hope for the future because of it.

Early on in the film, Puja shows a contact sheet to her grandmother. “Look closely,” she commands, handing her a magnifying glass. “Close one eye and open the other and look!” These words embody the spirit of the film and of Briski’s work. Through teaching the children how to look at their world, it teaches us how to look at ours as well. To look at our world as a place where people can, and do, make a difference.

Winning the Documentary Audience Award at Sundance 2004, Born into Brothels is now playing at festivals nationally and internationally. HBO has picked it up for a broadcast premiere. The film plays in New York City in June as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. One place it won’t play is in India and Bangladesh, a promise made by the filmmakers to the families to protect them from reprisals. Briski has set up a fund for the children called Kids with Cameras. More information on the fund and screening information is available on their website at:



Sanjna N. Singh is a writer, producer and director and currently works at HBO studios. She founded Chai Break Films in 2003 with a fellow Bryn Mawr graduate and they were awarded grants from the New York State Council for the Arts and the Experimental TV Center for their work Out of Status, an independent documentary, which follows four Muslim families detained or deported in post 9/11 immigration roundups.Her writing has been published in NY Times among other publications and she was a panelist at Amnesty International USA's Annual General Meeting in 2004. Singh recently interviewed Ross Kauffman, co-director of the film Born into Brothels which won an Oscar.


BORN INTO BROTHELS: A Review by Sanjna N. Singh








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Concept by Amrita Ghosh