BORN INTO BROTHELS. Directors: Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. Companion book by Umbrage Books, 2005. 120 pages.

“Photography, like dreams, helps us remember parts of ourselves.” —Robert Coles
Sitting in a darkened movie theater is often like entering into a voluntary dream state: the flickering light on the screen creates images that dance in the mind’s eye of the viewer; the director, actors, cameraperson, and costume designer aim for a verisimilitude that will transport the audience for 90-180 minutes of enlightened darkness; and after the film has run its course, those in the theater finish laughing, dry out tears, fold back the seats, and re-enter the real world.

Every once in a while, among the thousands of movies from the dream-makers, a gem of a film feels authentic, the reel as real as life itself. The first film that had that type of impact on us was Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Though it was a “movie” with moving pictures, this film froze on celluloid the life of a Brahmin boy (Apu), his family, and their Bengali village. The stills from that film have staying power: Apu and his sister, Durga, listening for a train; the brother and sister happening upon their father’s dead aunt; their father and mother mourning Durga’s death. Whether we saw them yesterday or half a century ago when the film was made, the stills stay pressed in our minds and hearts like photographs in an album.

As real as Apu and Durga felt to us while the lights were dimmed, once we left the theater, we knew that the dream was over. Despite our tears, no one had died. Born Into Brothels, the winner of last year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature is cut of the same humanistic cloth as Pather Panchali, but with one important and obvious distinction: the children are real.


As Diane Weyerman, the director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program writes in the companion book to the film, “In Born Into Brothels, directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman chronicle the amazing transformation of the children they come to know in [Kolkata’s Sonagachi] red light district. Briski, a professional photographer, gives them lessons and cameras, igniting latent sparks of artistic genius that reside in these children who live in the most sordid and seemingly hopeless world. The photographs taken by the children are not merely examples of remarkable observation and talent; they reflect something much larger, morally encouraging, and even politically volatile: art as an immensely liberating and empowering force.”

There are eight children featured in the film and the book—Avijit, Gour, Kochi, Manik, Puja, Shanti, Suchitra, and Tapasi—ranging in age from 10-14. Sitting in the theater and later reading the book, we made a genuine, if one-sided, connection with two of the children: Avijit and Puja. These two represent the brilliance that sometimes, against the tragically high odds of dark alleyways, finds its way into the world. While all of the children took strides toward a brighter future (with some slipping back into Sonagachi’s grip), Avijit traveled the furthest. This “innately talented artist” was invited by the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam to be part of their Children’s Jury.

Speaking at this year’s World Press Photo awards ceremony (where Arko Datta’s photograph of the Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy was Photo of the Year), David Campbell said, “Still images continue to have a surprising degree of power. You wouldn’t think that people in the age of the Internet and television would still go out and buy $45 coffee-table books, but they do. It’s still the still image, and not the television footage, that sticks in your head.” (New York Times, May 3, 2005).

In a testament to the power of photojournalism, what one remembers most vividly from both the film and book versions of Born Into Brothels are the photos. Photojournalism is an intense form of analytical art. Though by format, photographs have only two dimensions, the more successful ones tell a multidimensional story, thus facilitating the viewer to enter a setting and explore the situation from at least three perspectives: the photographer’s, the subject’s, and the viewer’s own privileged position.


Those of you who have taken photos of strangers know the courage involved. Briski believes that Puja “used the photography course to overcome her fear of her environment.” Puja adds, “I want to show in pictures how people live in this city.” Her street-level photo of an elderly man carrying a walking stick is admirable for its courage and daring; the stern disapproval on the man’s face palpably suggests how people look down on the children. Imagine being at the bottom of a highly stratified social system and stepping out without any of the credentials of a photojournalist. Just the existence of the photographs in Born Into Brothels is a miracle. And Zana Briski is the miracle worker who made the little miracles possible by placing cameras and plucky hope in eight pairs of young hands.

The anatomy of hope works in this way: each of the pairs of hands are connected to pairs of eyes that see the world in different ways—some looking at interior landscapes, others focusing their lenses on portraits, and still others zooming out onto the larger palette of the city. A hopeful belief in interconnectedness enables the children’s ways of seeing to be directly linked to viewers and readers living far away from Sonagachi.

—Anupama R. Oza and Rajesh C. Oza

Anupama R. Oza is a first-year journalism student at Northwestern University. Rajesh C. Oza hopes that the Avijits and Pujas of the world have similar opportunities to learn, develop, and become the Arko Dattas of the future.