BORN INTO BROTHELS
Eisner reviews films at the
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great, you figure. With a title like Born Into Brothels,
you're really in for a fun ride at the movies. Far from being
a grim and gruelling day in the bowels of Documentary Land,
however, the breezily paced movie turns out to be a heartening,
almost exhilarating journey into worlds unknown and well worth
movie immediately zeroes in on eight Calcutta urchins who would
likely be no-hopers if photographer Zana Briski hadn't handed
them 35mm cameras and then stood back to see what clicks. Suddenly
the children of prostitutes and drug addicts get an angle on
the world, and their point of view is literally validated by
of the film's central strengths is the speed with which it establishes
the highly developed personalities of its protagonists, such
as shy Kochi, assertive Shanti, and her impish brother Manik,
who prefers to fly kites and puts up with his hash-smoking,
ne'er-do-well father. "I try to love him a little,"
he says manfully.
mothers try to love the kids a little too. They are more or
less supportive of Briski's project, but you've never seen tongues
like the whips that lash out of these two-rupee hookers. Although
the camera is present, they appear quite comfortable unloading
epithets on their children and on one another that would make
a Russian sailor blush.
kids take it and move on, but there are snags. Even as the children
are empowered as artists, they meet resistance from family members,
neighbors, and especially bureaucrats, who seem to throw up
a hurdle every time Briski finds an opportunity for her students
to travel or attend boarding schools -- -the surest ticket out
of the urban armpit called Sonagachi.
particular, the film's story largely revolves around Avijit,
a born artist with a Buddha belly and seen-it-all eyes who first
faces family tragedy and then runs into government obstacles
(ironically, after his photos are recognized as being a cut
above the class's already high standards). His struggle is the
stuff of high drama, but Briski and her codirector, Ross Kauffman,
don't milk the big moments for unearned sentiment.
plenty of emotion, anyway, in the mixture of fresh faces, desperately
poor surroundings, and pulse-racing Indian music (used to most
exhilarating effect during the kids' one-off bus trip to the
beach). Some critics have faulted the film for not making Calcutta's
horrors horrible enough. But we already know about this level
of poverty; what we get less of, in everyday life and in visits
to the multiplex, is the sense of how much wealth is hidden
in the muck, and how much difference one person with open eyes
is directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman.