It’s been 10 years since British photojournalist Zana Briski began teaching photography to children of sex workers in Kolkata’s Sonagachi red light area, and four years since Born into Brothels, the film Briski co-directed with Ross Kauffman, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Since then, Suchitra’s life has changed. For the better, she admits demurely.
Suchitra was one of the eight children featured prominently in the film—the others being Puja, Manik, Shanti, Abhijit, Kochi, Gour and Tapashi. The film traced their childhood in Kolkata’s biggest red light district through a photography project Briski conducted; we are trying to trace their current status.
In the passing: Briski with a Sonagachi resident
Finally, we are face-to-face with Suchitra in her aunt’s minuscule room, having reached it after walking primly through the bylanes of prime evening-time Sonagachi, past hundreds of sex workers and aggressive pimps. Three women—under-dressed, with the almost obligatory loud made-up —sprawl around the building’s entrance. We take care not to step on anyone; the women themselves remain unmoved. Inside, there’s the stench of urine, women in petticoats tied around their chest taking a communal bath, a narrow wet staircase and un-plastered walls.
On the first floor, music floats out of a room, empty bottles of alcohol lie in a corner and more women lounge around in anticipation of a lucrative evening.
We come to Suchitra. She who had pondered over the question and bluntly said “no” when asked if she sees a solution to Sonagachi’s problems in Born into Brothels. Now, in her escape she’s found a solution. A long streak of vermilion marks her forehead and after initial scepticism, Suchitra’s in-laws have accepted her into their house, which lies many miles—and worlds—away from Sonagachi. “I won them over with my behaviour,” the 22-year-old says. Her education stopped after class VIII, but she married the tuition-mate she fell in love with.
These days, Suchitra works for an NGO that designs greeting cards. A replica of the Oscar statuette given to her, she says, is showcased in the NGO office. “I miss my relatives here, but don’t miss the life,” she says as we leave.
A bylane of Sonagachi
A room away, two middle-aged men are admitted inside by a woman who pulls the curtain tightly behind her. Children, including Suchitra’s cousins—seemingly of the same age when she was filmed—huddle together on the terrace.Approximately 3,000 children of sex workers continue to live with their mothers in Sona gachi, according to Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee, a sex workers’ forum active in the area.
A short walk away, when we eventually trace her after a week of searching, Puja Mukherjee is now Priti Gupta, young and inviting at Sonagachi. Puja, the chirpy kid whose reasonably well-off Bengali Brahmin family included three generations of sex workers, according to Briski’s film, was 11 when she featured as one of the eight children in Born into Brothels. At the Masjid Bari Street brothel, we walk through a corridor that is tiled and styled akin to a pay-and-use toilet, minus the stink. Magenta-coloured lights glow in rooms where young women sit on beds; cleavage and legs both complementing and competing with each other.
When she emerges from her room, Puja carries with her a draught of cool conditioned air and perfume—this, seemingly, is an expensive place, a category A brothel in Sonagachi’s hierarchical terms.
Puja is no longer dusky. She is fair and lithe in make-up, push-up bra and hot pants. Her constant on-screen innocent prattle has been replaced by smart business talk. Rs1,600 for an hour’s dancing, she tells us. Extra for extras. Most of our questions have been answered anyway and as we walk back, Puja gets busy arguing with a Hindi-speaking middleman. “I paid you Rs700 yesterday. Of that Rs625 is your dalali (commission). Where is the balance?”
Unlike Puja, Manik Das, the bright-eyed child who, along with elder sister Shanti, was a central character in the film, didn’t pass up the opportunity to break away from the bustling sex district. As we wait for Manik to come for his daily round of evening tea a block away from his south Kolkata hostel, a particularly harrowing sequence from the film returns to me: Ten-year-old Manik cowering and covering his ears to shut out the spew of invectives directed by his mother towards an unseen person in the brothel. Along with the calming thought of Manik’s fondness for flying kites, an eternal embodiment of the free and unfettered.
Suchitra photographed at her aunt’s house
Manik loves playing rugby these days. In the dark blue T-shirt with a rugby team emblem on the chest, he looks dapper. Shanti, he says, stays in a girls’ hostel in a fashionable part of the city and is studying for her higher secondary examination. Manik’s mother, as mentioned in the film, fretted over the girl’s future—the nagging poverty contrasted by the prospect of easy money through prostitution being a real danger in Sonagachi, home to an estimated 9,000 sex workers working out of 6,500 brothel-residences.
“Shanti wants to study hotel management,” Manik updates us as we sip tea at the roadside stall. Outsiders are prohibited at the hostel and the siblings only occasionally visit their parents’ home in Sonagachi. “If Zana aunty and Ross uncle hadn’t supported us, we would have been there. I could have been sucked into the sphere of violence, alcohol and drugs.”
Today, Manik plans to pursue photography as a career like Abhijit Halder, the most promising student in Briski’s photography class, who was invited to be on the World Press Photo Foundation’s children’s jury in Amsterdam in 2002 and is currently studying films in New York University. Like Kochi, the 10-year-old girl in the film who is now a promising student in the US, he wouldn’t mind relocating if required.
Says a member of the Kids with Cameras project, where Briski provided a select group of Sonagachi children with cameras to document their world: “Only those who utilized the opportunity to study provided by Zana aunty and Ross could move out.”
Gour couldn’t. Minutes after his mother lays out a large plastic sack for us to sit on, Gour, now 22, returns home from the nearby office where he is a peon on a monthly salary of Rs2,200. The family has moved out of the Sethbagan sex quarters and stays in a building opposite them.
As we walk through the Sethbagan lane, Gour exchanges familiar smiles with residents, but refrains from detailing his past. “The film people wanted me to go to the US, but I couldn’t leave my family. We don’t have contact any more,” he says. “Those three years of learning photography have meant nothing.” He offers to help us find the other children—but soon goes incommunicado altogether.
Common knowledge indicates that Tapasi, who became a dancer in the raunchy showbiz arena of rural Bihar, is lost to the wider world. Oblivious, obviously, to the citations and censures that have followed a film script that continues beyond its show time.
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