Review: Born Into Brothels

Born into Brothels is about children growing up in a red light district in Calcutta (now Kolkatta), India. What I wasn’t expecting is the extensive amount of outside intervention that is really the story of the film. Some would see this as an intolerable rebuke of the documentarian’s principal directive: to document. This is to say nothing of the always-controversial prospect of paternalism, for which the film could also be blamed.

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to make a documentary who’s primary goal was to show that regardless of geography, color, language, or wealth, people all over the world are essentially and primarily people. That we all, every one of us, has problems and faults that can be understood by all other people. For the first half of the film, I wondered if Born in to Brothel‘s goal wasn’t the same as that. For better or worse, in aggregate it’s about much more than that.

Arguably, the main character of the film isn’t the kids, or any specific kid, but the woman the children call “Zana Auntie.” Zana Auntie is never explicitly discussed in the course of the film, but by her accent and color I would hazard a guess that she’s British. What is clear is that she’s a photographer living in a red-light district in Calcutta who becomes close with some of the children there and decided to teach them about photography.

Through the first half of the film, one could mistake this for the film I always wanted to make. But the second half becomes much more about the goal of Zana Auntie to get the kids out of their neighborhood and what she sees as a dead-end life.

Here is where the specter of paternalism enters. Though the kids and their parents do from time to time appear genuinely interested in getting into a boarding school and away from their seedy neighborhood, it looks as if Zana Auntie’s really the only one pushing forward on this goal. Whether or not that, or anything, should be regarded and criticized as paternalism is not the topic of the film, but an interesting question in this context.

Without giving it all away, Zana Auntie faces an uphill climb to help these kids. Regardless of their sometimes troubled family lives, there are the added problem that poor everywhere face: an uphill climb to navigate the bureaucracy in their favor. This is made even worse because with mothers who are prostitutes nearly all schools want to avoid the kids. Criminal parents and what in America are called at-risk youths aren’t exactly the kind of pupils most headmasters seek.

Regardless of that whole story, the kids are indeed charming. They’re that mix of percosious and shy that makes most eight to twelve year olds either charming or a handful. Among them, the unquestionable star is Avijit.

Avijit’s father seems to be addicted to hash and generally appears to be a good-for-nothing, but Avijit assures us: “I still try to love him a little.” This and other similar lines cut through boundries and simply state what it means to be human. Perhaps it’s just me, but trying to “love him a little” is something I know well.

There’s no denying my affinity for the film. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s undoubtedly good. Like the picture’s the children take, some bits are unbelievably good and others are disappointingly flawed. On the whole, I can’t think of anything restraining me from recommending that you see Born Into Brothels as soon as you can.

One response to “Review: Born Into Brothels”

  1. Hi there
    Like the article…. and the blog come to that!!
    I saw the film on TV here in the UK about six months ago, and it really was thought provoking.
    I agree with your comments, although I remember the film as being more about empowerment. There were a few kids that were simply awesome. You could just SEE their potential, and this one project lifted them onto the shoulders of giants.