March 1, 2009

Girl in Oscar film turned prostitute

A FRIEND of mine from UK called up the day after Slumdog Millionaire won 8 Oscars. He wanted to know whether the children living in Asia’s largest slums – Dharavi in Mumbai, would have a better future, now that the film has exposed the pathetic living conditions of the slum. Would the Oscars to the movie showing these children provoke some thoughts in the minds of the government to take some measures to better the things for the slum children? I simply said ‘NO’.
And the next moment I was on phone assigning a story to our news desk in Kolkata to track the whereabouts of a girl in a red light area who rose to limelight after a documentary – “Born in Brothels” got accolades from across the world and also an Oscar in 2005.
“Is she enjoying a new life? Did Oscars change her fate? Is she happy?” Cascades of such thoughts were wrestling in my head. But an hour later I was told that the story was lined up as they had tracked the girl in Asia’s largest red light area, Sonagachi.

Puja is her name and she is 18. She was one of the nine children who were part of the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, directed by Ms Zana Briski. The film won 20 international awards. How is Puja? Has the Oscar recognition changed her life at all?
The story is disheartening to say the least. Fate hasn't spared Puja. She has slipped into the same formidable pit. She got sucked into the sex trade just a year after her brush with the Oscars. She was barely in her teens. 'It seems like a fairy tale now. I still see it in my dreams. I get goose bumps when I remember the heart-stopping moment when the award was announced,” she told my correspondent at her house in Kolkata.
"All of us kept screaming with joy. Zana aunty made sure we too went along to collect the statuette. My head was swimming, there were so many eyes on us, the deafening applause, so many cameras flashing...' Puja said.
While the children were in Los Angeles, Ms Briski and others tried their best to help them lead new lives. Puja was in High School then. The children took part in the documentary got an offer to stay back in the US and study. Some did. But Puja backed out.
'Aunty (Zana) gave a lot of money by cheque to my mother and asked her to release me, but she was unwilling. I am a girl and the only child; my mother wouldn't let go. Call it family pressure if you will. It's quite simple, really,' Puja said with a dismissive shrug followed by a short helpless laugh.
'So, you see me here.'
Dressed in jeans and a trendy shirt, Puja could pass for any other college student, until the whiff of smoke and alcohol in her breath hits you.
She is adamant about staying in the sex-trade.
'At this age, I have a flat, a laptop, costly phones and plenty of money. What do I lack?' she asked.
'Zana aunty and I are in touch by e-mail. She was upset that I, too, had joined the trade like my mother, something she wanted to save me from.
'But this trade has really paid off for me.'
A sign of her 'prosperity' - she has rented rooms in Prem Kamal, one of the most expensive Sonagachhi buildings. Mother Rakhi lives in the opposite building.
Puja pays for her living expenses. Her mother says she wanted a 'normal' life for Preeti. She still has a fading photo of Preeti with the Oscar statuette stuck on the wall.
'That is all I have left of her...' she said looking at it, as tears welled in her eyes.

Born into Brothels, by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, is the winner of the 77th annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes.