a letter Dr. Partha Banerjee wrote to the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award
organizers) on this year's nominated documentary "Born
Into Brothels," a film he closely worked on. The
film is based on the lives of some children of Kolkata's
(Calcutta) red light district Sonagachhi. The letter
is followed by an afterword by Dr. Banerjee.
Executive Director Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 8949 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills California 90211
February 1, 2005
Dear Executive Director:
Subject: Nominations for the 77th Annual Academy
Awards: Born Into Brothels
Your announced nominations for the upcoming
77th Annual Academy Awards include in the Best Documentary
Feature section "Born into Brothels" (THINKFilm,
A Red Light Films, Inc. Production, by Ross Kauffman
and Zana Briski). I have been actively involved with
the making of the documentary especially in its post-production
stage. As a documentary filmmaker, a Columbia University-trained
journalist-turned- activist and an avid admirer of the
medium of film and motion pictures, I am deeply concerned
that the nominations committee has perhaps overlooked
some of the probable, serious flaws contained within
the film – both ethical and stylistic.
In your official synopsis, the film is described
as follows: "While documenting the experiences
of prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light district, photojournalist
Zana Briski befriended many of their children and decided
to provide them with a chance to record images from
their own lives. Supplied with cameras by Briski, the
children present a portrait of their harsh world that
is both unique and insightful."
The above is indeed true. And I don't have
any problems finding credit for Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman
for the time they took to live with and befriend the
poor children. However, I take issues with the often-explicit
presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media
personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that
the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able
to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution
they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true.
I visited these children a number of times
during the last couple of years and found out that almost
all the children are now living even a worse life than
they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them.
The children's despair has exacerbated because they'd
hoped that with active involvement in Ms. Briski's camera
project, there would be an opportunity for them to live
a better life. At the same time, their sex worker parents
believed that with so much unrestricted access to their
secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers,
and that too, so generously (were their written consent
ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there
would be a way their children would also be sharing
some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in.
Alas, very likely, they don't even know that their misery,
helplessness and traumas are now being widely exposed
and exploited to find fame and prosperity.
Further, the film forgets to mention that Calcutta
is a city where its red-light district is a safe refuge
for its sex workers and their trade. With help from
hundreds of Calcuttan activists, social workers and
medical practitioners, Sonagachi (the district depicted
in the film) has become synonymous with many struggles
won by its inhabitants (for one, the HIV rate among
sex workers in Sonagachi is remarkably low: 5% compared
to 80% in Mumbai). These sex workers and their activist
comrades have set up -- however rudimentary -- financial
institutions, health clinics, sex education schools
and blood banks in that labyrinth of alleys that would
otherwise be ignored and rejected by the other side
of Calcutta and its elite doctors, artists, poets, filmmakers
and politicians (and I must say, I was one of this other
side for more than twenty five years of my life before
I moved into U.S.). The conjecture drawn by the makers
of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were
responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out
to these children and their parents is simply absurd.
"It takes a village…"
Stylistically, the documentary is in fact a
mix of real and fictitious shots and scenarios, the
latter being abundant throughout the film. This makes
me question the legitimacy of the film being labeled
as a documentary and not a fiction. A plethora of glitzy,
Bombay-film-industry (i.e., Bollywood) music has been
used to editorialize the film, which is troubling.
The most troubling, however, is the use of
the final piece of music that ends the "documentary"
with an apparent melodramatic note. This piece (it was
in there at the time the film was premiered at New York
City's Museum of Radio and Television in 2004) has been
directly "lifted" from the celebrated Calcuttan
film maestro, Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy
finale. Is Ms. Briski or Mr. Kauffman aware of this
It is not my wish to personally tarnish the
directors and producers of Born into Brothels and I
apologize profusely in the event my assertions are found
untrue. However, I am troubled by the nominations and
eulogies heaped upon the film without some serious re-examination.
We Calcutta-born Americans who crave for high art and
creativity are already much-undermined by many other
attempts to relegate our beloved city into ignominy.
My opinion is that the present so-called documentary
is the latest addition to that series of gross misrepresentations.
Thank you for your kind attention.
In early February, when I faxed my
open letter to Hollywood AMPAS on the contextual, ethical
and stylistic flaws of Born Into Brothels, I did not
anticipate how widely it’d be picked up globally and
what great response it would generate. The letter and
its aftermath did not prevent the film from winning
the Oscars. But it did what it meant to do: make some
of us think twice about the politics of certain art
and entertainment, and mainstream media and Hollywood’s
appropriation-exploitation of them. The pleasantly surprising
uproar in U.S., India or U.K. – real and virtual – reminded
us the progressives about our role to put up resistance
against lies, ignorance and discrediting of our struggles.
For me, it was precious time worth spending.
Philanthropy is fake if it’s disconnected from learning
and appreciating the political and cultural history
of the people it’s professing to save. Born Into Brothels
and its self-professed propagandists, however, don’t
even attempt to acknowledge the disconnect. Their denial
follows a new pattern of globalized obliteration of
“unpopular” history of aggression and marginalization.
In the context of the Indian subcontinent, a violent
and tyrannical Western political colonization paved
way to cultural subservience and a complete disregard
for the peoples’ movements. The so-called upper class
educated is programmed to accept a short-lived and sporadic
“White” occupation of and in the “God-forsaken,” “Third
World” as a watershed, one-of-a-kind, savior’s mission.
The film’s theme on Kolkata (Calcutta) and Bengal, a
prosperous land of bounty systematically raped, looted,
debased and impoverished – first by Europeans, then
by their handpicked successor corrupt, feudal rulers
– is a prime example of this sowing of the new, “genetically
engineered” seeds of liberal fantasy, and the elite’s
Elite-aspirant media and ethnic groups’ intellectual
orgasms are broken up and undone by our strong voice
of dissent, and they react by such outrage and ostracism.
Then, in order to compensate for their dissatisfaction,
they profusely reward the so-called art and entertainment
as if the dissent is non-existent or not worthy of discussion
(Anecdotally, “Born…” directors are now to be honored
at the annual SAJA reception, June 17, Columbia University).
I, however, survived the elite’s insults -- I found
my sanjivani elixir churned out of the scores of messages
of support that came from both the well known and the
less known. And, I’m leaving out some critiques of the
film by professional reviewers (“Noble Rescue Effort
or Exploitation?” by Deborah Hornblow in Hartford Courant,
March 4; “Zana’s Shutters” by Seema Sirohi, Outlook
India, March 14; or Walter Chaw in Film Freak Central,
Prof. Noam Chomsky sent a personal message: “Thanks
for sending the letter. Fascinating, and disturbing.
I think you should find some way to make your critical
analysis public, pretty much as in your letter: not
a criticism of the directors, but of the basic assumptions
that lie behind this kind of work, including the marginalization
and denial of what people are doing for themselves,
and the pretense that exploiting of suffering for artistic
purposes -- whatever one's judgment about the art --
helps the victims.”
Prof. Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak wrote: “…Since I am
not a solidarity tourist – exactly at the other end
from the "Born into Brothel" makers – I generally
focus on my grassroots teacher training work when I
am in West Bengal, and don’t have time to do anything
else at any level. But after reading your letter, I
think I must somehow make a niche of time to go there
and say some of the things you say.”
Prof. Dilip Basu of the Satyajit Ray Remote Consultant
at University of California-Santa Cruz forwarded me
his letter to AMPAS’ executive director Bruce Davis
expressing concerns that in spite of the Consultant’s
denial of permission, “Born…” producers went ahead and
“used” pieces of music from the maestro’s Apu Trilogy.
Finally, the most comforting messages showed up from
Sonagachi and Kolkata. Swapna Gayen, secretary of the
sex workers’ union wrote a strikingly eloquent letter
to Kolkata’s Daily Telegraph on March 15, 2005: “The
film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers
in Sonagachi…The documentary does not shed light on
the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite in order
to change their own lives as well as that of their progeny.
In this sense, Born into Brothels is biased” (R20).
In this age, when it is the
norm to respect ethical considerations while making
documentaries, the film used hidden cameras to shoot
intimate moments in the lives of sex-workers and their
work zones. We fear the global recognition of such a
film, giving a one-sided view of the lives of sex workers
in a third world country, may do a lot of harm to the
global movement of sex workers for their rights and
dignity. It can even have an impact on their hard-won
victories for rights, un-stigmatized healthcare and
access to resources. (R20)
No comments necessary. Problem is that the so-called
entertainment industry doesn’t care to know what ‘we’
people have to say. Additionally, the corporate industry
now found bedfellows in mainstream- and elite-aspirant
ethnic media that would reject any iota of criticism
or questioning. A mass brainwashing is near-complete
where the newsmaker and newsreader are both happy and
dandy with whatever is doled out to them by the powerful.
So, this is mid-May and my personal narrative ends for
now with a note of frustration yet with a deep sense
of renewed solidarity with progressive thinkers and
activists worldwide. A young freelance journalist friend
was so impressed by the letter campaign that he spoke
with a British magazine, took an expensive trip from
New York to Kolkata, did an investigative story into
the making of “Born…,” and he’s ready to publish that
our thoughts and experiences on the multi-million-dollar
golden Hollywood baby are, yes, true!
The name callers and their barrage of disparage, therefore,
can never really touch us, hurt us. They don’t get it.
We do. They don’t get the language we speak, the history
we emerge from. We do.
We stand on a moral ground. We stand tall.
Gayen, Swapna. Letter. “Nightmares on Celluloid”.
Daily Telegraph. 15 Mar. 2005, R20.
The Author holds permission for using all the
quotes being referred to in the article.
Banerjee is a freelance journalist in New York and holds
a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate
School of Journalism; he also has a PhD in plant biology
from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He
is the executive director of the NJ Immigration Policy
Network and the author of the book In the Belly of the Beast.