‘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: