Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids. Directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. New York: THINKFilm, 2005.

Reviewed by Sarah E. Ryan

Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids purports to reveal Sonagchi, Calcutta, through the eyes of its most vulnerable inhabitants: sex workers’ children. However, the film’s most developed story line centers on its co-director, photographer-cum-activist Zana Briski. As “Auntie Zana” battles bureaucrats to secure educational opportunities for her pupils, she runs up against the limits of her social capital, displayed unflinchingly by the documentarians. Haunting still photographs and street-shots bathed in red provide a backdrop for Briski’s quest. Underscoring Briski’s determination to free the children from the confines of the brothels, lingering shots of caged animals at a zoo and frequent voice-overs remind viewers that “without help, [these children are] doomed.” This is possibly a veracious assessment, but the film’s implicit endorsement of outside solutions proves defective. Lasting change must come from within Sonagchi and the children, as the supporting players frequently demonstrate.

Indeed, Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids compels viewers to revisit notions of childhood agency.1 Throughout the film, Sonagchi’s children negotiate their world in ways that Briski never masters, flirting for photographic access, participating in the labor force, and convincing family members to allow them to attend school. Ensnared in the underside of transnational capitalism, Briski’s pupils inhabit a milieu of informal networks, undernourished avenues of resistance.2 Rather than leveraging the power flowing through the brothels, Briski often acts alone—at least on screen. Her failure to tap into existing linkages thwarts her efforts at every turn, as Indian school officials and bureaucrats deny her the respect and access she desires. Such pitfalls illustrate the limitations of external change agents to effect system-level change.3 In a similar vein, the film conspicuously confronts the limitations of art or technology to radically transform underprivileged children’s lives. As the closing credits roll, one wonders, what now for the children of Sonagchi? The answer to that question lies with them.

1 See Patricia H. Miller, “Contemporary Perspectives from Human Development: Implications for Feminist Scholarship,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31, no. 2 (2006):445-69.

2 Molly Talcott, “Gendered Webs of Development and Resistance: Women, Children, and Flowers in Bogotá,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 2 (2004): 465-89.

3 See Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 2003), and Françoise Lionnet, Obioma Nnaemeka, Susan H. Perry, and Celeste Schenck, “Introduction: The Human Face of Development – Disciplinary Convergence and New Arenas of Engagement,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 2 (2004):291-97.

Sarah E. Ryan is Interim Director of Women's Studies at Baruch College, The City University of New York. She teaches Communication in Baruch's Master's in Public Affairs program and holds a PhD in Rhetorical Criticism and a Women's Studies Certificate from Ohio University (Athens, OH).