India is a fucking pit. Anyone so inclined could make a case for Haiti, the Sudan, or even Buffalo, New York, but the whole of India – a nation so bereft of hope and simple human dignity that if Gandhi were alive today, he’d grab a cricket mallet, a few crumpets, and side with the British crown – deserves to be labeled the worst patch of ground on planet Earth. You might argue for the wonder of the Taj Mahal; I’d counter with the reality that within its walls, there is more fecal matter and animal urine per square inch than anywhere else, save, of course, Chris Farley’s last apartment. You might bring up the beauty of its citizens; the spiritual wonder that surrounds a kind, warmhearted populace. I’d answer with the fact that yes, even a billion people can be dead wrong, especially regarding a silly-ass religion that has some elephant at its center. Jesus might be homoerotic and borderline creepy, but at least he’s human. And yes, I suppose there’s that legacy; that long Indian history that reveals great art, philosophy, food, and assorted cultural symbols. I’d simply clear my throat, pause briefly, and remind you that these are the same people who bathe, shit, give birth, and die, all in the same fucking river. If you are scrubbing the dinner dishes in the same place where grandma vomited what remained of her charred lung, you are excused from civilization’s table.
I ramble so cruelly and hatefully not to be gratuitous, but rather to lead into a further discussion of yet another plague not unique to India’s shores, but certainly as common as the exporting of engineers and customer service representatives–child prostitution. In what is charmingly referred to as Calcutta’s “Red Light District,” girls, some as young as eight-years-old, are sold–often by their own parents–into a life of chugging musty cock and taking it from behind. Girls who should be playing with dolls (oh yeah, it’s India–working in the mines) are instead serving dirty, nasty men who feel it is empowering to rape children. But these girls are merely following in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents, and aunts, who have worked these streets for generations. Without hope or opportunity, there is little for these girls to do, corrupted as they are by one of the most sexist societies on the planet. To be an Indian woman is to know pain and dehumanization; where if you aren’t scrubbing shit-stained floors or cooking deplorable meals that, at best, hasten one’s death, you are fucking for pennies, getting pregnant, and returning to the trade after a crude, life-threatening abortion. It’s a fate far worse than death, which seems to be the rule in India’s streets.
Born into Brothels is an attempt to offer a glimmer of hope in the face of this monumental tragedy, although by the end, only a handful can be reached. The problem is simply too large in scope; where one girl is saved and sent to school, only to pass a fresh batch of new recruits while on her way out of the madness. Zana Briski, the documentary filmmaker who tries to reach these poor children, does manage to demonstrate alternatives, but she loses far more in the process. And many of these kids do display genuine talent in the field of photography, chronicling their tortured lives in great detail, but outside of a trip to an Amsterdam show, we know in the pits of our stomachs that this is but a temporary reprieve. Too many Westerners romanticize Third World peoples–especially children–but it is easy to see why. These kids are heartbreaking in their wide-eyed wonder; taking to their cameras with all the glee that is to be expected with children who possess the passion to learn. Their laughter and smiles are indeed infectious, as we know that it must be that much more difficult to muster such joy in the face of poverty few of us could ever imagine. But these aren’t saints, merely children like anywhere else; kids who fear needles (although these youngsters are getting tested for AIDS), face the wrath of unfair parents, and usually dream beyond the reach of reality. Only in Calcutta, arguments with mom and dad could lead to you being beaten, thrown in a sack, and peddled on the streets next to the chicken curry display.
It is fair to criticize this Oscar-winning film for its all-too-frequent focus on the efforts of Ms. Briski rather than the kids themselves, but it’s hardly fatal. Annoying at times, yes, but only because this is their story, not another showcase for guilty white liberals. As bizarre as it sounds, I wanted more immersion in the streets; I needed to see each and every corner of this world, even to the point where I’d be forced to lose my lunch. After all, child prostitution is surely man’s greatest crime, and it serves no one to avoid its stinging face. We see the overall circumstances, but not enough of the minute-by-minute fears as these children service their vile clientele. Fine, this is a story of hope and possibility, but that’s the easy–or often American–way out. If we can’t see a silver lining, we feel we’re wasting our time. But outside of obliterating the entire nation of India and admitting defeat, I fail to see a solution. One lonely girl being saved from a life of sickness and death is not to be minimized, of course, but in a country so vast, can it really be classified as a victory? The girl surely gets an education and may indeed escape to the West, but the rapes continue night after night, driven as they are by man’s revolting nature. A film like this can foster another of man’s crimes, that of false comfort.