Some topics of inquiry are so infuriating and so potentially saddening that it is sometimes a burden to look into them– a mental burden that scares you off before you have even looked into the matter. This documentary has been sitting on my desktop for almost a year. It has been on my to-watch-list ever since I heard of it, but every week, every day, I have chosen to ignore it and have watched something else instead. Today, I did the opposite. And by doing so, I realized how stupid I have been for so long for judging a documentary merely by its name.
This is not a documentary about prostitutes. It is a film about their children, who live in and around the brothels of India, who have been born into brothels, and many of whom will spend their whole lives in the brothels. It is a film about one woman’s quest to teach a handful of these children how to photograph the lives they live, the people they see and the world around them. This is a film about their journey in photography while they try to battle the demons that plague them. There is hope here, faint yet enduring.
Right from the start, there is a permeating, almost engrossing sadness to the film. This is to be expected of course, but it is much more than your average sad tale of woe, it is a sadness of normality, of acceptance, of coming to terms with pain. Its not a sadness borne of anger, it is a sadness of playing out the cards one has been dealt in life. These children are so casual about their status in the world, so capable of expressing how they view their lives and where they see it going, that it touches you to the core. Kids barely 11 and 12 speak of the pressures on other children, of the threat to join the family business, of filthy lifestyles and dark prospects, of broken dreams and dead ends. It is enough to make you want to cry. And all the while, they show you how they live through their own pictures, they create art where there is nothing but darkness, they find hope in images that are seared into their minds, that will impact them forever.
This is the story of just one red light district in just one city of India. There are probably hundreds in that city, thousands in that province, hundreds of thousands across the nation. And so many more across this planet. The reality is sobering. But for these kids it is life, and life as one child puts it, “is painful, but it needs to be accepted”.
The depth of experience these children possess just from what they have seen during their short lives is astounding. We see children that have sold liquor and harassed people that don’t pay. We see children talking openly about how their relatives want to sell them into prostitution. We see children that leave the house when their mother is working. We see children that have ceased to be children, and have become mere characters, as if in a play, devised by a demented human, bent on hurting the characters as much as the audience.
As a documentary, this film is shot remarkably well. As a film about children, their innocence, their lives, it is wonderfully interpreted. As a documentary about India, it is astutely presented- music, scenery, crowded lives, narrow pathways and dirty neighborhoods all factor in prominently. It is not an exaggeration, it is a depiction of reality. As one child puts it, “wherever you see dirty dishes, there you will also see a pair of shoes.” Life is harsh but it has it funny moments- this film factors them all in and presents a composition that is visually stunning, emotionally uplifting and crashingly sad at the same time. A rare mix it must be said, but then this is not ordinary tale. This is India, and it has many faces, some good, some painful– all yearning for something better.
I really should come up with a system of rating that I can apply to movies. Because here I stand, wanting to tell you all that this is a must-watch film, but I realize that I have said that to you numerous times before too. So what do I say that will make you go out and watch this film over any other, I don’t know. I don’t have a classification above “must-watch”. I need to find one desperately. Till then, I can only persuade you by saying that this film made me cry, several times. I had to take breaks, I had to stop and reflect, I had to digest.
We live beautiful lives. Despite our most arduous of lives, despite our biggest hurdles and our moments of despair, we live beautiful lives. These children do not have that luxury. But here, for just a few minutes we get to see them enjoy life for what it is and try to make it in the world. Some fail, some keep trying, some live on. It is a beautiful film that will haunt me for weeks.
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