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Born into Brothels

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Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids
Directed byZana Briski
Ross Kauffman
Written byZana Briski
Ross Kauffman
Produced byZana Briski
Ross Kauffman
StarringShanti Das
Puja Mukerjee
Avijit Halder
CinematographyZana Briski
Ross Kauffman
Edited byRoss Kauffman
Music byJohn McDowell
Distributed byTHINKFilm
Release dates
  • 17 January 2004 (2004-01-17) (Sundance)
  • 8 December 2005 (2005-12-08)
Running time
85 minutes
CountriesUnited States
Box office$3.5 million (USA) [1]

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids is a 2004 Indian-American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. The widely acclaimed film, written and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005.[2]


Briski, a documentary photographer, went to Kolkata to photograph prostitutes. While there, she befriended their children and offered to teach the children photography to reciprocate being allowed to photograph their mothers. The children were given cameras so they could learn photography and possibly improve their lives. Their photographs depicted a life in the red light district through the eyes of children typically overlooked and sworn off to do chores around the house until they were able to contribute more substantially to the family welfare. Much of their work was used in the film, and the filmmakers recorded the classes as well as daily life in the red light district. The children's work was exhibited, and one boy was even sent to a photography conference in Amsterdam. Briski also recorded her efforts to place the children in boarding schools although many of the children did not end up staying very long in the schools they were placed in. Others, such as Avijit and Kochi, not only went on to continue their education but were graded well.


There is debate about the extent to which the documentary has improved the lives of the children featured in it.[citation needed]

The filmmakers claim that the lives of children appearing in Born into Brothels have been transformed by money earned through the sale of photos and a book on them. Ross Kauffman, co-director of the documentary, says that the amount earned is $100,000 (about Rs.4.5 million), which will pay for their tuition and for a school in India for children of prostitutes. Briski has started a non-profit organization to continue this kind of work in other countries, named Kids with Cameras.[3] A film is being made on the life story of a high-profile trio of call girl sisters, Shaveta, Khushboo and Himani, born in one of the brothels of Haryana.

In November 2006, Kids with Cameras provided an update on many of the children's conditions, asserting that they had entered high schools or universities in India and the United States or found employment outside of prostitution[citation needed]. Kids with Cameras continues to work toward improving the lives of children from the Calcutta red light district with the plan to build a Hope House.[4] Updates for 2010 and 2009 were also published.[5][6]

In 2004, REACT to FILM organized a screening for Born into Brothels at the SoHo House in Manhattan, NY. In 2010, the film's director, Zana Briski, joined the advisory board of REACT to FILM.[7]


The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a prostitutes' organization active in Sonagachi, has criticized the film for presenting the children's parents as abusive and for ignoring the prostitutes' efforts to provide education programs and career building activities for their children.[8] In addition, the film has been criticized in India for perceived racist stereotyping, and has also been viewed as exploiting the children for the purposes of Indophobic propaganda in the West.[9] A review in Frontline, India's national magazine, summarized this criticism, remarking:

IF Born Into Brothels were remade as an adventure-thriller in the tradition of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, its posters might read: "New York film-maker Zana Briski sallies forth among the natives to save souls.[9]

Some critics joined the Sonagachi prostitute-advocacy groups in condemning the film for exploitation of the plight of the prostitutes for profit.[9] Other criticisms were raised about "ethical and stylistic" problems, by Partha Banerjee, interpreter between the filmmakers and the children.[10]


Critical response[edit]

Born into Brothels has an approval rating of 95% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 108 reviews, and an average rating of 7.83/10. The website's critical consensus states, "A powerful and uplifting documentary".[11] Metacritic assigned the film a weighted average score of 78 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[12]




Born into Brothels was preserved and restored by the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with the Sundance Institute from a D5, a DigiBeta, a 35mm print and a Magneto Optical Disk. Restoration funding provided by the Sundance Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The restoration had its U.S. West Coast premiere at the UCLA Festival of Preservation in 2022.[15]


  1. ^ "Born Into Brothels (2004)". Box Office Mojo. 14 July 2005. Retrieved 12 July 2012.
  2. ^ "Born into Brothels". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2007. Archived from the original on 28 December 2007. Retrieved 23 November 2008.
  3. ^ "Kids with Cameras". www.hotels-rajasthan.com.
  4. ^ "Kids with Cameras". www.hotels-rajasthan.com. Archived from the original on 22 September 2008.
  5. ^ "Update on the Kids of Calcutta". Kids with Cameras. July 2010. Archived from the original on 7 October 2011.
  6. ^ "Update on the Kids of Calcutta". Kids with Cameras. April 2009. Archived from the original on 23 April 2015.
  7. ^ "React to Film". Ninunina.com. Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
  8. ^ "Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee- Education". durbar.org. Archived from the original on 3 September 2013. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  9. ^ a b c Swami, Praveen (2005). "A missionary enterprise". www.frontline.in. Archived from the original on 16 June 2014. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  10. ^ a b "Kolkata connection at the Oscars". Yahoo! News. 3 March 2005. Archived from the original on 3 March 2005. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
  11. ^ "Born Into Brothels". Rotten Tomatoes.
  12. ^ "Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids". Metacritic.
  13. ^ "Cleveland awards Born into Brothels". filmfestivals.com. 25 April 2004. Retrieved 13 August 2023.
  14. ^ a b c d e "Born Into Brothels". filmsalescorp.com. Retrieved 13 August 2023.
  15. ^ "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids | UCLA Film & Television Archive". cinema.ucla.edu. Retrieved 24 October 2022.

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