‘Born into Brothels’: Looking Back at a Gem in Documentary Filmmaking

‘Born into Brothels’ happens to be the first documentary that I had seen together with my husband, a documentary movie buff. I remember how deeply moved and emotional I had been while watching filmmaker Zana Brisky’s exceptional journey into the forsaken alleys of Kolkata’s red light area, and her discovery of the children born into those brothels. Today, after I had watched the film again, those emotions rushed back to me, and I instantly reconnected with those mighty moments of exploration, depicted with so much of honesty and ingenuity. This essay is a personal journey of remembering and honoring the film, eight years after I had first seen it. The review was initially published at Associatedcontent.com, and later, was republished at ‘Yahoo Voices’. 


The poster of the film ‘Born into Brothels’. Pic courtesy: Amazon.com


“Born into Brothels”: A Re-review

In a world of abject poverty, abuse and despair; the resilience of childhood and the restorative power of art go hand-in-hand to transport children born in filth to a new world, a world which they are taught to discover with new eyes. Those who have seen the seething documentary written and directed by Zana Brisky and Ross Kauffman named “Born Into Brothels” based in the red light districts of Calcutta, will surely be able to identify this image as a central element of the much acclaimed film of 2004.

Looking back at this immensely inspiring and uplifting documentary that puts other narrative documentaries to shame even after 3 years of it’s release, it is amazing to discover that even today, many of us still want to talk about the film, about the several unforgettable children born in the red light area portrayed so sensitively in the film, and also want to analyze the filmmakers’ vision in making the film. The principal reason behind this eagerness is not merely the fact that this widely acclaimed documentary had won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and the Academy Award back in 2005, but the intensity and honesty with which the filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman chronicle the amazing transformation of the children they come to know in the red light district. Precisely, this was something which had not been commonly touched upon by filmmakers. Take a close look at the theme of the film and you will easily see that the filmmakers actually wanted to tear the façade of the apparently growing prosperity of India and unravel the dark underbelly of poverty, depravation and human exploitation that keeps growing in the other side of the nation.

The film will be also be remembered for many days for the daring attitude of the directors who went a long way to convince a special group of children of the prostitutes of the area to photograph the most reluctant subjects dwelling inside the entire institution of skin-trading. Briski, a professional photographer from New York, spends years of her life in with these kids, exploring the hopeless lives of the sons and daughters of prostitutes through photography and film. On one hand, while she relentlessly portrays the world of sex workers and their hopeless, depraved life, on the other hand, she exhibits sheer determination to use the art of photography to provide the children with the opportunity for higher education, hope and a better life. The children, enthused with their “Zana Aunty” and their newly found cameras, came up with photographs that in a word, ignited latent sparks of artistic genius residing within them. Their work being exhibited and acknowledged, one boy named Abhijit was even sent to a photography conference in Amsterdam. Briski also recorded her efforts to place the children in boarding schools.

The portrayal of artistry and talent of the children in the film, as reflected in their works of photography, critics have said, have not only served as examples of remarkable observation and talent; but have also reflected something much larger: the role of art in all humanity as an immensely liberating and empowering force. Given the cameras, the children go on a clicking spree, creating fragments of moments of their life which become prisms into their souls, bearing true testimony of the power of their indelible creative spirit. Here, the filmmakers use a poetic, metaphorical narrative, using mostly pictures taken by the children and the expressions of the children. However, reality soon surfaces as they navigate through unbelievable levels of bureaucratic quicksand in an attempt to get the children out of the slums and into boarding schools.

In cinematic terms, there is a debate as to why after an absolutely engrossing first reel, the directors follow a slightly frustrating route, with the focus shifting to a more conventional individual vs. the system story. But one has to understand that the film comes out of an impulse of the filmmakers not only to document the lives of poor, neglected and oppressed, but also to chronicle the world of resistance and chaotic bureaucracy that surrounds it. Seen from this perspective, it can be said that the film tempers its optimism with realism in a way that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. There is a surrealistic delight in the pluck and intelligence that blossom in middle childhood. At the same time, there is the cruelty of social arrangements that allow those qualities to be squandered, which justifies the second half of the film. 

The debate which ensued as an aftermath of “Born Into Brothels”, was on whether the documentary has truly improved the lives of the children featured in it. While the film-makers claim that the lives of children appearing in “Born into Brothels” have been transformed by money earned through the sale of photos and a book on them, some volunteers and organizations disputed the claim that the children’s lives have been improved, arguing that Briski should be criticized for using hidden cameras, misrepresenting the children’s parents and ignoring the prostitutes’ substantial efforts to unite. As a filmmaker, Briski knew that the circumstances of these children were too complex to be revolutionized by educating one family member in photography, or even by sending them to boarding school. For the records, the film itself depicted scenes in the end where many of those put into boarding school ended up leaving the school and returning to their previous life of squalor before long. Coupled with it, there was the challenge to counter hundreds of years of narrow mindedness and the proverbial Indian bureaucracy. As a filmmaker, Brisky deals with all this not as a social worker, but as a sensitive human being with her own vulnerabilities. This is precisely what brings a sense of truth into the entire exercise of creating the film, for which the film deserves a special mention in the world of narrative documentary film-making.

For those interested to see the essay online at ‘Yahoo Voices’, here is the link:


To those interested to know more about filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman and their groundbreaking work, this is an excellent resource:



You can view the full documentary here and let me know what you felt about it:


Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy: the Quintessential Celebration of Life Through the Vision of Death

Author’s note: An analogy drawn between the famous trilogy film of internationally acclaimed Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray and the cycle of life and death–which lies at the heart of Indian philosophy.

This essay was originally published in ‘Cafe Dissensus Everyday’ dated July 26, 2014:



‘Na jaayate’ mriyate’ vaa kadaachin naayam bhuthva bhavithaa na bhooyah:

ajo nithyah saasvato’yam puraano na hanyate’ hanyamaane’ sareere’ 

“Never is he (Soul) born, nor does he die at any time, he has never been brought into being, nor shall come hereafter; unborn, eternal, permanent and ancient (primeval). When the body is slain, he is not slain.” (The Holy Bhagavat Gita)

Since times immemorial, our ancient sages, spiritual thinkers and philosophers of Vedic Hinduism have contemplated upon the inevitable end of life–death. From their contemplation as well as from the numerous ancient scriptures, have evolved perceptions regarding death—not as an end to all, but as a pivotal step towards the existence of the human soul, or in other words, a temporary cessation of physical activity. When talking about the vision of death and dying in our philosophy, on one hand we are reminded of the teachings and the quintessence of the philosophy of Sankara, who had preached: “Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah”: which can be translated as: “Brahman (the Absolute) is alone real; this world is unreal; and the Jiva or the individual soul is another form of the Brahman. On the other hand, there are several lucid articulations of our religious belief in the Atman and the Brahman identified by several other spiritual thinkers. They have emphasized on the intensification and expansion of the religious and moral connotations of life, death and human action—in other words–Dharma, Moksha and rebirth, through the classical Indian spiritual teachings.

Years later, the greatest of all poets, the intense spiritual thinker Rabindranath Tagore, who was himself a Brahma by descent, had remarked that death is not an extinguishing of the light. It is rather an act of putting out the lamp to welcome a new dawn. This perception of Tagore the philosopher and the thinker, which perfectly embodies the quintessential celebration of life through the vision of death, has yet again been reflected through the lens of yet another great thinker, visualizer and filmmaker of all times, Satyajit Ray. And the very first film that comes to our mind when discussing the concept of death and how it celebrates the force of life, would undoubtedly be the Apu trilogy comprising “Pather Panchali” (Song of the little road—released in 1955), “Aparajita” (The Unvanquished—released in 1957) and “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu—released in 1959). Exuding a raw energy and supreme power of art, the entire trilogy, on the surface level, traces the epic journey of the sole protagonist Apu from his impoverished rural boyhood to his years in Baranasi and Calcutta to his marriage and fatherhood. On a more metaphysical plane, the three films depict the unique life of the protagonist in various stages where he is time and again faced with the exploration of the range and depth of spiritual inquiry, centered round the vision of death.

In the first film of the trilogy, “Pather Panchali”, which was shot entirely in the rural outskirts of West Bengal, India, Ray’s camera went on to explore universal themes of life, uniquely portraying the unforgettable sweep of life in the protagonist Apu’s life in his idyllic childhood with his sister Durga and their old aunt, Indir Thakrun. Critics have later remarked that through the most truthful, unobtrusive and modern photographic style that Ray used in all the three films of the Trilogy, he has actually tried to embody the essence of the Italian neo-classical cinema he was so much in love with. It was his vision of human life which has time and again been used as a raw material of the kind of cinema he stood for. Based on this singular vision, his camera has followed the daily lives of the protagonists, resulting in a simple universality of the themes of his films, and the effectiveness of their treatment. This is as true in case of his “Apu Trilogy” as it is in his later works.

The main theme of “Pather Panchali”, played on a bamboo flute and taken from a song the old women ‘Indir Thakrun’ sings to herself in her long and persistent wait for death, tugs at the heartstrings with the openness and freshness quite unmatched in the history of cinema. The song, “hari din to gelo shondhya holo/paar koro amare”—refers to the crossing of the river at the end of the day by a helpless voyager of death—in a pretty obvious evocation of the crossing over from life to death. In the entire film, little unforgettable images of idyllic childhood and humane sequences—including that ofApu and Durga and the ducks of the village parading after the local candy-man in Felliniesque fashion, Durga supplying her old, frail Aunt with stolen guavas from the neighbor’s orchard that inspire huge toothless smiles to the old woman, the excitement and pristine pleasure of the siblings induced with the sight of a running train amidst the rural railway tracks—together contribute in giving an elemental quality of human life to the film. On the other hand, there is a subtle but clear juxtaposition of birth and death, affection and anguish, pettiness of everyday life and the joy of it that leave indelible images in the mind. What is more unique, the death sequences in the three films of the trilogy are each marked by brilliant innovation, calculated to give them a new intensity of a personal experience in the mind of the protagonist Apu.

Pather Panchali my drawing

A portrait attempted by yours’ truly, based on a still of the film ‘Pather Panchali’

The juxtaposition of life and death, or the journey of life and it’s end with death as the inevitable revolves around the film with the intrinsically woven sequences. The frantic search for the train by Durga and Apu in the vast, open field of white Kash flowers is one of the most lyrically filmed, evocative scenes in the film, symbolizing the children’s quest for the world beyond their reach. There is the onset of the monsoon bringing hope, joy and new life. Ray’s lenses follow the first rain drops of the season, falling on the bald plate of an angler, on the water hyacinths in the pond, and over the trees in the field. The momentum slowly builds, drawing Durga to her dance in the rain (one beautiful, evocative work of cinematography). Gradually, the storm rises in ferocity, destructively threatening the foundations of their dilapidated house and ultimately claiming Durga’s life. On the other hand, Apu’s Aunt Indir Thakrun’s death scene contains a vital emotional and visual sweep of the film, as the scene shows the child Apu’s first tryst with the concept of death. At the end of the film, when Durga dies, Apu is seen to perform his daily tasks of combing his hair, brushing his teeth alone. Here, Ray’s lenses seem to suggest that he will now be destined to travel his own path.

In the following film “Aparajito” (The Unvanquished), when the ten-year old Apu is shown to cope with his father’s sickness and his mother’s over-protectiveness amidst the backdrop of Benaras, the boy is shown to struggle to achieveindependence, demonstrate his academic gifts and ultimately journey towards a decent university life in Calcutta. The most evocative death sequence of this film comes at the moment of Apu’s father Harihar’s death, where Ray’s lenses follow with precision the glimpse in Harihar’s eye as he takes his last swallow of holy water from the Ganges, the pigeons in the roof of the building abruptly fleeing, noisily flapping skyward. As a seventeen-year old Apu, the boy is seen to lead a new life with each death in his family. The mother dies in a sequence that begins with visuals of her son’s sun dial; the scene continues through the fireflies of the evening and ends with Apu’s encounter with the empty house in the village, with the suggestion that the boy will be led to a new life again, with this death.


The adolescent Apu in search of his self-identity. Image source: ‘Indian cinema@100: 100 great films – NDTV’. Ndtv.com

In all the three films, there is a strange recurrence of death which is placed as the opposite side of the coin of life, and Ray presents it with a sheer classic touch that evokes humanistic response. A romantic youth Apu in the last film of the Trilogy, “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu), who earns a living out of tutoring, spends most of his time vaguely fantasizing about his future, playing his flute, and writing his novel, quite accidentally starts his family life by marrying Aparna. Apu’s detachment from Nature in his adulthood starts with the first reel of the film showing his dingy one-room near the train lines—-the same train, which symbolizes the advent of the outside world for the child Apu. On the surface level, this detachment shows Apu as a lonely recluse. On a metaphysical level, it suggests the onset of a new phase of his life, which begins with his learning to reconcile happiness with the ties of a family.

The relationship with Apu’s wife that begins with trepidation and poverty gradually matures to an enduring and adorable one. However, it is the sheer twist of fate that the young bride leaves to be with her family for childbirth and never returns. Her death in childbirth provides the final blow of life to Apu from the thematic level, as he buries all his dreams and disbands his unfinished novel to seek “peace” through routine work in a remote mine. However, in a symbolic level, the recurrence of death brings home the overall theme of the trilogy, that death and rebirth must make their mark in human life. This symbol of death and rebirth recurs throughout the journey of Apu’s life, and culminates when years later, the father Apu is re-united with his five-year old son, Kajol. The last scene of “Apur Sansar” which shows Apu carrying Kajol on his shoulder, very evocatively depicts the fact that after traversing a long and weary road, Apu has found salvation at last. This salvation is the very essence of the concept of “moksha”, which is the very nucleus of the philosophical teachings based on “Vedanta” and “Vedanga”.


The adult Apu and his wife Aparna in ‘Apur Sansar’, the last film of the trilogy. Image source: martinteller.wordpress.com

There is a strange co-existence of life and death as the obvious counterpart of life, working as the nucleus of the Apu trilogy, and the cinematography of Ray is instrumental in depicting this co-existence with its brilliant style of neo-realism. This is true in case of “Pather Panchali” where the child Apu, living on the edge of poverty with his sister and his family, struggle to understand the greater truths of the world–the nature of man and his ability to face the future through two deaths in the family.  In “Aparajito”, there is the same poignant lyrical quality of life battered by death, depicted in some scenes with the adolescent Apu and his surroundings. The ‘ghats’ (shores) of Benaras, the village of Mansapota where he moves with his mother after his father’s death, reflect a sublime, deeply affecting struggle between death, life and personal experiences in the mental world of Apu. The celebration of life through the mystic vision of death follows till the culmination of Apu’s journey in “Apur Sansar”, where the world of the ever-ravaged Apu is shown with subtle symbolism. All the while, Ray’s lenses follow the mental world of the child Apu who gains maturity and salvation in the end of the Trilogy, after a weary journey of his vulnerability, despondency, pessimism, escapism and hard-hardheartedness, all of which have been a cumulative result of the deaths and personal losses he had encountered in his journey of life. The choice of the riverside as the location in the final scene of “Apur Sansar”, with Apu carrying his son Kajal on his shoulders, is charged philosophically, conveying the endless ebb and flow of life, which must go on, no matter what.


Apu and his son Kajal…the final scene of ‘Apur Sansar’. Image source: http://www.srfeliu.es

In the realm of our philosophy, where both birth and death are perceived as two distinct illusory scenes in the human journey of this world, it is the self-realization of the human mind regarding the birthless and deathless “Atman”, the Infinite, and freeing oneself from birth and death that is emphasized on, time and again. Likewise, throughout the Apu Trilogy, Ray has emphasized on the elemental beauty and the ultimate reality of human life that underlies the death sequences, the scenes of disconsolate grief and excruciating struggles of Apu’s mental world. Thus, through his documentation of the soulful and poignant journey of the life of Apu, the central protagonist, he accomplishes the metaphysical task of depicting life as a cycle of creation, preservation and destruction—which lies at the heart of the six Vedangas and the six systems of Hindu philosophy.