By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Expecting a gush of hard-core sentimentality, I stubbornly resisted this documentary for weeks. But it’s set in Calcutta, now Kolkata, where I lived and worked for two years, so I had to check it out....
I’m settling into my seat, shrugging off my jacket, when the woman in front of me twists around and calls to a friend a few rows back. “I’ve seen it twice,” she honks. “You'll love it! You’ll adore it!”
I cringe, feeling a little grinchy, recalling the blurb in the local grab-it-for-free alternative weekly. The film has been held over, again and again, so more good people can irrigate their tear ducts, evidently:
When even hardened film critics are weeping copiously during the press screening, you know you’ve got the real thing on your hands. Zana Briski’s Oscar-winning documentary parallels [?] her work teaching photography to eight talented boys and girls, the children of prostitutes from Calcutta’s notorious red-light district Sonagachhi. Over the brief but brutally affecting course of the film you become almost as desperate as Briski over their individual fates, as she struggles to find funding and a boarding school willing to accept the children of sex workers. Briski and her co-director Ross Kauffman are smart enough to stay mostly out of the way, letting the stunning, raw photographs of the children tell the story.
Notice those scene-setting descriptors: notorious, brutal, desperate, raw. Poor Calcutta/Kolkata, still seen through the lens of the horrendous “black
hole" which wasn’t a hole, only a chamber too small for all the English prisoners stuffed into it on a hellishly hot day before AC, which means a lot of them died of heat prostration. The local ruler, it seems, had briefly regained power, treating his English captives with the sort of disdain the English had shown toward Indians. Ever since, the West–Zana Briski included–has been taking revenge on Calcutta.
Sonagachhi itself, by the way, dates back to colonial days, when it served the “needs” of the lower ranks of the British military, those who couldn’t afford to set up “native” mistresses in private domestic establishments. Here is a passage from the prologue of a fascinating study entitled Dangeous Outcaste: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Calcutta by Sumanta Banerjee:
Like other pre-colonial socio-economic formations, the profession of prostitution also underwent a dramatic change in Bengal soon after the British take-over. It attracted a wide variety of women from different segments of the population from both within and outside Bengal, and acquired new types of clientele....It was also subjected to attempts at control and surveillance by the colonial administration, as well as reassessment by the newly [English] educated... descendents of the old Bengali households. From the relative obscurity of the periphery of rural society in pre-colonial Bengal, the prostitute suddenly emerged into the full glare of publicity in Calcutta, the capital of colonial Bengal....There was an explosion of morbid curiosity and prurient voyeurism around her lifestyle....