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'Born Into Brothels' leads to real-life happy endings for some

For those who've seen the Oscar-nominated ''Born Into Brothels," the documentary that tracks the children of Calcutta's red light district, the ending lingers long after one has left the cinema: images of sweet-faced kids, wisecracking kids, talented kids, kids faced with not-so-happy endings.

The question persists: What happened next?

As it turns out, most of them are doing quite well, facing hopeful futures, according to filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. There is the pudgy Avijit, son of a murdered prostitute, now 15 and attending one of the best schools in Calcutta, with plans to go to art school in New York. He regularly e-mails the filmmakers.

''Dear Zana Auntie and Ross Uncle: I'm a completely different Avijit. I'm thin and I speak English."

And then there's this much more recent missive: ''When are you coming to Calcutta. . . . Tell me about the Oscars."

The film, which is playing locally at the Kendall Square Cinemas, has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

Pretty Puja, now 13 and in school, text messages Kauffman from her cellphone -- a gift from the filmmakers -- every chance she gets: ''Ross, where are you? I miss you."

Kochi, who rarely spoke in the film, now speaks English fluently. The 12-year-old someday wants to teach children like herself.

''The kids are taught to be ashamed of themselves. It's handed down to them," Briski says. ''Now they're very empowered to help themselves."

Since 1998, Briski, a British photographer, has been trekking back and forth to Calcutta, originally moving into a brothel to document the lives of India's sex workers. There she became entranced with the children, who followed her everywhere, asking endless questions. She bought 10 basic cameras and taught the most curious ones how to shoot pictures, and then sent them out to capture their worlds.

The results were surprising: Glimpses of true talent, of artistic sensibilities. Briski persuaded Kauffman, a film editor with whom she was then romantically involved, to collaborate on a documentary. Over two years, they filmed the children, ever more determined to save them. The obstacles were significant: Girls born into brothels were destined to be put ''on the line." Boys could count on careers as pimps, drug dealers, or thieves.

Fighting byzantine bureaucracies, and some parents who saw their children as meal tickets, Briski and Kauffman helped many, placing children in group homes, enrolling them in schools. An exhibition of the children's photography has toured the world; sales of their photos and a companion book have raised $100,000, which goes toward their education. The filmmakers plan to build a school in Calcutta for 50 children of sex workers. They've also launched similar ''Kids With Cameras" programs in Cairo, Haiti, and Jerusalem.

Still, Briski says, not all of the children could be helped. Gour, the serious one, refused to leave the brothel; he doesn't want to leave his mom. But he plans to attend college. Now 16, he's an activist, e-mailing Kauffman and Briski to send help when a child in the district is in trouble.

Manik and Shanti, brother and sister, ages 13 and 14, remain in the brothels. Shanti has run away from her group home a couple of times. Manik is on a waiting list to get into the same group home as Avijit.

Watching the film for the first time, the young audience cracked up at the sight of themselves. But for Kochi, who stood up for herself and refused to return to the brothels, it triggered mixed emotions.

''Kochi said it really hurt her to watch the film, to see how her life used to be," Briski says. ''She said, 'What would I have done without you?' I was heartbroken. I asked her if [the documentary] was truthful. She said yes. It told her how far she's come and how far she has to go. She was able to take the pain and transform it."

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