Background photographs by Amitava Shee












Below is a letter Dr. Partha Banerjee wrote to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award organizers) on this year's nominated documentary "Born Into Brothels," a film he closely worked on. The film is based on the lives of some children of Kolkata's (Calcutta) red light district Sonagachhi. The letter is followed by an afterword by Dr. Banerjee.

Executive Director Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 8949 Wilshire Boulevard Beverly Hills California 90211

February 1, 2005

Dear Executive Director:

Subject: Nominations for the 77th Annual Academy Awards: Born Into Brothels

Your announced nominations for the upcoming 77th Annual Academy Awards include in the Best Documentary Feature section "Born into Brothels" (THINKFilm, A Red Light Films, Inc. Production, by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski). I have been actively involved with the making of the documentary especially in its post-production stage. As a documentary filmmaker, a Columbia University-trained journalist-turned- activist and an avid admirer of the medium of film and motion pictures, I am deeply concerned that the nominations committee has perhaps overlooked some of the probable, serious flaws contained within the film – both ethical and stylistic.

In your official synopsis, the film is described as follows: "While documenting the experiences of prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light district, photojournalist Zana Briski befriended many of their children and decided to provide them with a chance to record images from their own lives. Supplied with cameras by Briski, the children present a portrait of their harsh world that is both unique and insightful."

The above is indeed true. And I don't have any problems finding credit for Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman for the time they took to live with and befriend the poor children. However, I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true.

I visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them. The children's despair has exacerbated because they'd hoped that with active involvement in Ms. Briski's camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life. At the same time, their sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously (were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in. Alas, very likely, they don't even know that their misery, helplessness and traumas are now being widely exposed and exploited to find fame and prosperity.

Further, the film forgets to mention that Calcutta is a city where its red-light district is a safe refuge for its sex workers and their trade. With help from hundreds of Calcuttan activists, social workers and medical practitioners, Sonagachi (the district depicted in the film) has become synonymous with many struggles won by its inhabitants (for one, the HIV rate among sex workers in Sonagachi is remarkably low: 5% compared to 80% in Mumbai). These sex workers and their activist comrades have set up -- however rudimentary -- financial institutions, health clinics, sex education schools and blood banks in that labyrinth of alleys that would otherwise be ignored and rejected by the other side of Calcutta and its elite doctors, artists, poets, filmmakers and politicians (and I must say, I was one of this other side for more than twenty five years of my life before I moved into U.S.). The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd. "It takes a village…"

Stylistically, the documentary is in fact a mix of real and fictitious shots and scenarios, the latter being abundant throughout the film. This makes me question the legitimacy of the film being labeled as a documentary and not a fiction. A plethora of glitzy, Bombay-film-industry (i.e., Bollywood) music has been used to editorialize the film, which is troubling.

The most troubling, however, is the use of the final piece of music that ends the "documentary" with an apparent melodramatic note. This piece (it was in there at the time the film was premiered at New York City's Museum of Radio and Television in 2004) has been directly "lifted" from the celebrated Calcuttan film maestro, Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy finale. Is Ms. Briski or Mr. Kauffman aware of this serious digression?

It is not my wish to personally tarnish the directors and producers of Born into Brothels and I apologize profusely in the event my assertions are found untrue. However, I am troubled by the nominations and eulogies heaped upon the film without some serious re-examination. We Calcutta-born Americans who crave for high art and creativity are already much-undermined by many other attempts to relegate our beloved city into ignominy. My opinion is that the present so-called documentary is the latest addition to that series of gross misrepresentations.

Thank you for your kind attention.


Partha Banerjee


In early February, when I faxed my open letter to Hollywood AMPAS on the contextual, ethical and stylistic flaws of Born Into Brothels, I did not anticipate how widely it’d be picked up globally and what great response it would generate. The letter and its aftermath did not prevent the film from winning the Oscars. But it did what it meant to do: make some of us think twice about the politics of certain art and entertainment, and mainstream media and Hollywood’s appropriation-exploitation of them. The pleasantly surprising uproar in U.S., India or U.K. – real and virtual – reminded us the progressives about our role to put up resistance against lies, ignorance and discrediting of our struggles. For me, it was precious time worth spending.

Philanthropy is fake if it’s disconnected from learning and appreciating the political and cultural history of the people it’s professing to save. Born Into Brothels and its self-professed propagandists, however, don’t even attempt to acknowledge the disconnect. Their denial follows a new pattern of globalized obliteration of “unpopular” history of aggression and marginalization.

In the context of the Indian subcontinent, a violent and tyrannical Western political colonization paved way to cultural subservience and a complete disregard for the peoples’ movements. The so-called upper class educated is programmed to accept a short-lived and sporadic “White” occupation of and in the “God-forsaken,” “Third World” as a watershed, one-of-a-kind, savior’s mission. The film’s theme on Kolkata (Calcutta) and Bengal, a prosperous land of bounty systematically raped, looted, debased and impoverished – first by Europeans, then by their handpicked successor corrupt, feudal rulers – is a prime example of this sowing of the new, “genetically engineered” seeds of liberal fantasy, and the elite’s self-stimulated gratification.

Elite-aspirant media and ethnic groups’ intellectual orgasms are broken up and undone by our strong voice of dissent, and they react by such outrage and ostracism. Then, in order to compensate for their dissatisfaction, they profusely reward the so-called art and entertainment as if the dissent is non-existent or not worthy of discussion (Anecdotally, “Born…” directors are now to be honored at the annual SAJA reception, June 17, Columbia University).

I, however, survived the elite’s insults -- I found my sanjivani elixir churned out of the scores of messages of support that came from both the well known and the less known. And, I’m leaving out some critiques of the film by professional reviewers (“Noble Rescue Effort or Exploitation?” by Deborah Hornblow in Hartford Courant, March 4; “Zana’s Shutters” by Seema Sirohi, Outlook India, March 14; or Walter Chaw in Film Freak Central, undated).

Prof. Noam Chomsky sent a personal message: “Thanks for sending the letter. Fascinating, and disturbing. I think you should find some way to make your critical analysis public, pretty much as in your letter: not a criticism of the directors, but of the basic assumptions that lie behind this kind of work, including the marginalization and denial of what people are doing for themselves, and the pretense that exploiting of suffering for artistic purposes -- whatever one's judgment about the art -- helps the victims.”

Prof. Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak wrote: “…Since I am not a solidarity tourist – exactly at the other end from the "Born into Brothel" makers – I generally focus on my grassroots teacher training work when I am in West Bengal, and don’t have time to do anything else at any level. But after reading your letter, I think I must somehow make a niche of time to go there and say some of the things you say.”

Prof. Dilip Basu of the Satyajit Ray Remote Consultant at University of California-Santa Cruz forwarded me his letter to AMPAS’ executive director Bruce Davis expressing concerns that in spite of the Consultant’s denial of permission, “Born…” producers went ahead and “used” pieces of music from the maestro’s Apu Trilogy.

Finally, the most comforting messages showed up from Sonagachi and Kolkata. Swapna Gayen, secretary of the sex workers’ union wrote a strikingly eloquent letter to Kolkata’s Daily Telegraph on March 15, 2005: “The film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi…The documentary does not shed light on the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite in order to change their own lives as well as that of their progeny. In this sense, Born into Brothels is biased” (R20).
Gayen continued,

In this age, when it is the norm to respect ethical considerations while making documentaries, the film used hidden cameras to shoot intimate moments in the lives of sex-workers and their work zones. We fear the global recognition of such a film, giving a one-sided view of the lives of sex workers in a third world country, may do a lot of harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights and dignity. It can even have an impact on their hard-won victories for rights, un-stigmatized healthcare and access to resources. (R20)

No comments necessary. Problem is that the so-called entertainment industry doesn’t care to know what ‘we’ people have to say. Additionally, the corporate industry now found bedfellows in mainstream- and elite-aspirant ethnic media that would reject any iota of criticism or questioning. A mass brainwashing is near-complete where the newsmaker and newsreader are both happy and dandy with whatever is doled out to them by the powerful.

So, this is mid-May and my personal narrative ends for now with a note of frustration yet with a deep sense of renewed solidarity with progressive thinkers and activists worldwide. A young freelance journalist friend was so impressed by the letter campaign that he spoke with a British magazine, took an expensive trip from New York to Kolkata, did an investigative story into the making of “Born…,” and he’s ready to publish that our thoughts and experiences on the multi-million-dollar golden Hollywood baby are, yes, true!
The name callers and their barrage of disparage, therefore, can never really touch us, hurt us. They don’t get it. We do. They don’t get the language we speak, the history we emerge from. We do.
We stand on a moral ground. We stand tall.

Gayen, Swapna. Letter. “Nightmares on Celluloid”. Daily Telegraph. 15 Mar. 2005, R20.

The Author holds permission for using all the quotes being referred to in the article.


Partha Banerjee is a freelance journalist in New York and holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism; he also has a PhD in plant biology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is the executive director of the NJ Immigration Policy Network and the author of the book In the Belly of the Beast.









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