A remarkably honest look at Calcutta’s Red Light district, Born Into Brothels overcomes a slightly manipulative opening—close-ups of pining faces accompanied by soapy music—to powerfully portray the lives of Indian children born to prostitutes. At just 83 minutes, Born Into Brothels packs more empathy and authenticity than ten average war flicks. Its cruel truths are wrenching, even more so upon reflection—for every grateful smile, there’s a harsh reality accompanying it. Considering that directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman filmed eleven kids in all, it’s impressive how vividly each one nestles in our hearts and minds.
Braving a dangerous slummy neighborhood, Briski spent over a year teaching the children photography—which allowed them to view their sadistic world from a more optimistic perspective—and working to get them into boarding schools (co-director Kauffman deserves equal credit; he was behind the camera). The monstrous difficulty of this task forms Born Into Brothels‘ core—between ignorant mothers, an insular world of warped morals, extreme poverty, and other disturbing factors, these kids face a tremendous uphill climb to attain any form of success. Frequently, for selfish reasons their families refuse to allow the children to attend school: they want help around the house, they need them to watch the babies while they whore, they don’t want to spend a dime. Many of the mothers seem to be jealous, or perhaps ignorant, of the opportunities opening up for their kids; they can’t foresee any future but the dead-end of prostitution. Few attitudes may be more despicable, but after all, many of these births were unplanned. It’s the rare family that has a supportive father, or any kind of regular income. Briski and Kauffman spent countless hours trying to reverse, at the very least, a few of these unfortunate scenarios, and it’s clear that this wasn’t just a token gesture—it was genuine, deep compassion…so rare in today’s world. Born Into Brothels’ sobering finale is tinged with an optimism—seeing one of the boy’s photographs displayed in London, for instance—that should puncture the tear ducts of the iciest men.
In addition to its obvious social information regarding Calcutta, Born Into Brothels doubles as an allegory for America’s decrepit current educational situation. Many of the same pitfalls plague New York’s (and many other cities’) public school system, and with George W. Bush on board for another four years, it’s unlikely we’ll see a sudden stream of money pumped into urban schooling. The most striking similarity, though, is just how little an outsider can really do for these troubled youths. Despite Briski’s around-the-clock efforts, only one of the eleven children she worked with stayed in school by the conclusion of filming (since then, more have made it). Meanwhile, here in today’s educational system, there’s only so much that our young, ambitious teachers can accomplish—they’re dealing with children who return home at 3:30, to be ignored, beaten, mistreated, and tutored in ungrammatical lingo. Coupled with their (usual; of course many exceptions exist) tumultuous upbringings, these kids are behind the 8-ball before our teachers learn their names. Both today’s educators and Zana Briski are part of a currently insurmountable task—their gallant efforts give us hope that one day, the tunnel will burst open and sunlight will flood the brothels and classrooms.