We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Born into Brothels_: And she was still within his reach · 19 March 05

Dearest Jane,

It feels right to write this to you. I remember in one of your letters that you and Henry go visit a prison and your intense stark dismay at what you saw.

Izzy and I went to see another Indian film—one most unlike the garish vulgar Bride & Prejudice or the exploitative Vanity Fair: Zara Briski & Ross Kauffman’s Born into Brothels.

I found it austere, hard to watch, sometimes hard to listen to, & heart-breaking, often poignant. While the credits list both Briski and Kauffman, the film is Briski’s.

Zara Auntie (what the children whom become attached to her call her) had wanted to film the adult life of the brothel, but the adults would not cooperate—not the prosititutes, especially not the pimps. As in many documentaries a story line emerges.

Briski attempts to rescue a group of children from the hideous & brutal life of prostitution, pimping,drug-taking in Calcutta, India. She comes back repeatedly to the idea that these girls will soon "go on the line." We see Indian women lined up in the streets repeatedly, waiting for one of these males to come buy their "services." Briski saves two or three of her flock, even though she manages to put just about each child she tries to place into a school which will accept them (religious, Catholic it seems).

Her Herculean and persistent efforts over documents, against hostile and indifferent mothers and relatives or adults in charge of the children (workmasters—we see the children being beaten into work or beaten when they don’t satisfy) do get the children places in what looks like primitive bare schools. But they children ar then prevented from going by a mothers (or some other relative or perhaps someone in the brothel who doesn’t want to lose them as workers), or the adult pulls the child out, or (in the case of one), the child leaves the school herself. One girl whom she does not manage to place runs away from the mother and brothel and (we are told) was taken into a school in another city.

This storyline is what holds the picture together and gets the viewer involved—because of the great charm and intelligence of the children. We want them to be saved. The ending of the film is powerful as we get sober recounts of Briski’s failure—or I should say their local adult’s indifference to their fate or selfishness.

I could see no adult near any of them show affection or interest; we are told of a father who kept a remarkably beautiful, sensitive and sophisticated boy from leaving the brothel. We never see this man.

The children are like slaves. They are without caste. I’ve been aware that children of slaves are treated badly by their parents too. As a child born illegitimately is treated badly by a father. We do see the adults in the brothel only from the outside and in moments of uncontrol, lassitude and indifference. They had refused to be filmed. They are all called "criminals" —adults and children.

At first Briski can get nowhere with any school as most schools in Calcutta refuse such children because they are the children of "criminals." Just about everything that goes on in Calcutta’s Red District is against the law. So all are criminals.

Endless obstacles are put in the way of trying to give these children any opportunity, mostly (I must suppose) because the authorities know the parents will not have any money to pay for anything so it’s easier to say no based on lack of documents. They keep the press of people off this way. We see our film-maker struggling to get documents, to see the right person, and finally being defeated or rarely winning.

She is helped by a grandmother at one point (or older woman who is given care of some of the children in return for a place to sit, food, and quiet space). The aged woman (one cannot tell how old she is) explains to someone why they can get no signatures. The father is now a drug addict (once he was "fat" and could "beat up others") and since the mother tried to commit suicide by jumping over a bridge, she is not the same. I note we can’t tell whether the story is accurate. What is important is that it is accepted.

Briski has has to take the children to a doctor to prove they are HIV negative—or they won’t be accepted. The children are duly taken. She rejoices that none turns out HIV positive on the grounds that now their applications will be accepted.

The life in these brothels is almost unspeakable. It is nearly unfilmable. We can’t see the sex that goes on except from far. A mother of one child is burnt to death by her pimp. Nothing is done. When told she was dead, Briski suspects immediately the woman was destroyed by her pimp in just this way. What could Briski have seen before?

Not a digression: this story reminded me of the picture I saw in the local Washingont Post of a woman whose eyes were
gouged out by her husband. The photographer remained anonymous. The husband had suspected this woman of having sex with someone else it was said. In reality he took out his cruelty, brutality and malice on her. She sat there with his child on her lap. I have not yet gotten over how no one, not one soul, has lifted a finger to take her out of this montrous male’s reach.

No one would do anything to this pimp who burnt this woman to death.

The women are in general presented as speaking the vilest of language to everyone, including their children, but especially to one another. I really found it difficult to read what they were saying, so crude and incessantly graphic and spiteful was the language they used to one another as a matter of course. The men are continually there as customers, doing drugs, looking vile, sickly, all low appetite. We only glimpse them. They seem rightly ashamed, stay far from the camera except when under the influence of drugs. We see the women in contact with the children; we see them refusing to go out of the brothel and finding excuses not to help the children escape. Filth and aging things are everywhere. It’s remarkable everyone is not much sicker than they are.

Our filmmaker takes the children to the zoo, once to a beach. What a happy moment is that. We see them as children are, and
interpersed are photos the children themselves took. Touching.
I am aware that this film-maker or someone has money to do what was done for the children. Each had a camera and was encouraged to take photos all the time. They were said to be in a "course."

A high point for them is when their photos are put on display in a local photo shop. They are made to feel special and good about themselves. This is part of Briski’s efforts to help the children. She has a dream to take them out of India itself. She and her male companion-friend, Kauffmann, get the pictures into a gallery show in Amsterdam and after much trouble (including from the boy himself who is reluctant to go and then ever so desirous—reminding me of my Isabel whose application was refused at Sweet Briar for her to go to Oxford out of class discrimination and prejudice against her personality), we see him get in a cab and get on a plane and go to Amsterdam. In the shop the children’s pleasure and sense of self-dignity and worth is so unusual their hands shake when they are asked to sign something. I came away remembering their traumatized eyes at the words they are forced to listen to in the brothel and the yearning hope in these same eyes and (in the case of the boy whose father would not let him go) quiet despair.

Of the "reviews" online someone who saw the film talked about his or her dismay when a child talked of how hopeless the situation is. It is hopeless. There is no hope for them. I know that in Calcutta the press of people is such and the politicization through family groups such that mobility is extremely rare. Jhabvala’s "Myself in India" shows that despair and hopelessness is simply realism at the present time. The NYRB reported the insane brutality and torture to which Bombay police subject people. On WW some members complained how Jhabvala’s stories were all "so dismal," a "dismal parade." Jhabvala’s stance was the truthful one. At one point one of the boys showing the photos in the gallery at Amsterdam to viewers who are appalled and complain, says to the these people, "This is the truth." I suggest Jhabvala’s early realistic bourgeois story, Amitra is the serious equivalent of Bride & Prejudice and understand why she moved away from that.

A comical (sort of) note is struck in the film over how everyone relies on paperwork and yet so many are illiterate or simply not
up to getting all these documents together: a leftover of the Raj.
What was meant for objectivity and efficiency turns into a desperate unreal method for turning people away or driving them mad with frustration. Old men in the street make a little money helping others to fill out documents—wrongly usually apparently.

Another film or book about prostitution comes to mind—made
in New Orleans and about how hard if not impossible it is for children to escape. They have lost all caste. They "belong" to the brothel. Born into Brothels is antidote to the somewhat sentimental Rabbit Proof Fence. After all, the people who put children in these western schools have some reason on their side. One way in India to rise and have a decent life is western-style education. You can hope to get a job with a western-style business.

One could ask how can such things be —except that they are. Can Such Things Be is the name of a play by Elizabeth Inchbald. And the 1790s Jacobins are today sometimes laughed at. I know Charlotte Smith would not. You did not, Jane.

The theater my younger daughter and I saw this film in was also showing Bride and Prejudice. I need hardly say—but
will—that Born into Brothels was in the tiny theatre with few people and B&P in one of the larger rooms. I asked Izzy how the films compared and she grimaced or laughed.

I recommend Born into Brothels. A film by a woman about women and their children.


Posted by: Ellen

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