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On Joy. And Brothels.

Something you should know:  I intensely disliked the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

I know it was a huge hit here in the United States, but I think what bothered me about it was that it played to the stereotypes that many people living in the West have about India.  Poverty, despair, filth, crime, hopelessness, corruption... and something about the movie made me feel intensely awkward.  Maybe the attempt to mix in all that joy, hope and other similar fuzzy feelings with what I perceive to be real and deadly serious problems.

Plus, it's not the India that I know.  So, yes, Slumdog Millionaire, super-duper-pseudo-Bollywood-crossover hit of the aughts, bothered me.

I feel the imperative to disclose here that my distaste for the film was exponentially compounded by the fact that I imagine hell is walking a treadmill listening to "Jai Ho" on repeat.  I hate that song.

Still, it occurred to me very recently that just because Slumdog Millionaire doesn't represent the India that I know doesn't prove that this India does not exist.  It does.

Furthermore, I realized that joy can live anywhere.  It can live on Park Avenue or a slum in Bombay or Calcutta.

Because joy is not contained in geography, but within the human heart.  I learned this when I watched another film tonight.

I'd seen bits and pieces of the documentary Born Into Brothels (2004) over the years, but for the first time this evening, I watched it in its entirety.

All I can say is, "Ouff."  That's the Urdu equivalent of "Oye" or "Oh, boy."

This was a very difficult movie to watch.  It's a documentary about the relationship a visiting photographer forms with several children living in a particular red light area (that's foreign for brothel) in Calcutta.  Zana Briski, the photographer, gives the children cameras and begins to teach them about photography.

You should see the photos the children took.  They are simply amazing.

As I assume would be the case with anyone, Briski becomes increasingly involved in the children's lives and tries to help them escape the life that they seem absolutely destined to live.  Her efforts are noble, but throughout the film they seem simply insurmountable.

And, make no mistake, these children's lives represent every manifestation of what I envision to be hell on earth.  Prostitution, deprivation, negligence, violence, addiction, discrimination, Jai Ho blaring in the background... Maybe not that last thing.  Inappropriate.much?  I couldn't resist.  Hate that song.

Seriously, it was absolutely heartbreaking to see children have to endure this place.  And why?  Because they just happened to be born there.

There's this idea that anyone who lives a life of despair chooses to do so.  This is so incredibly false.  Especially when one considers that many of the people living these lives are kids who just happened to be born there.  It's not like they had a say in it.

I'll say it again. Ouff.

You know what I did see tonight, though, that was astonishing, incredible and made the whole movie completely worth it?

HopeJoy.  Dreams.

If someone could bottle these kids' abilities to hope, they would be a gazillionaire.   They live in conditions of which we cannot begin to conceive and, still, they talk about leaving... going to a university... maybe studying in London... maybe even becoming a famous photographer.

And, oh, they laugh, and dance, and sing... and their faces are full of joy.

Of course, the mind says, "Hope doesn't get you out.  They're doomed... there's absolutely no way out for them."

The mind is pesky and mean like that.  Let's just tell the mind to shut up and go balance our checkbook because that's its job.

Besides, hope doesn't live in the mind.  It lives in the heart.

I could wallow in the despair I feel as I watch these children, but I'm too busy being in total awe of them and their ability to capture the beauty in the darkness around them with a camera lens.

And, of course, I am struck with admiration for their incredible ability to smile and dream big.

I watch them dream and I feel less afraid to do so myself. 

They gave me courage.


(Born Into Brothels is available on NetFlix On Demand.  If your heart can bear it, you should watch it.  Come back and let me know what you think.)

Reader Comments (62)

I enjoyed the story behind Slumdog Millionaire very much... and it made for a compelling movie. But I in no way considered it to be indicative of all life in India. Merely a fictitious rendition of one aspect of India that, at some point, was based a real story that took place there. Of course, I have the same approach with movies that take place anywhere, so my feelings are not unique to India.

But I DO understand what you're saying. The things I experience in my travels rarely match up to the stereotypes that the majority of people are most familiar with (and probably believe to be true). It's sad, to be sure... but is made so much worse when you see how such blatant misconceptions affect people's viewpoints. I honestly believe much of the world's problems stem from people fully accepting things they're told about people and places instead of experiencing the truth... seeking that joy... for themselves.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave2

I have not seen Slumdog Millionaire because it doesn't look interesting to me in the least. It just looks like poor kid turned rich due to being on a TV game show. Sorry if I totally got that wrong, but that is what I have gathered from the previews. And I really hated the Pussycat Dolls song that came from the movie and that just did me in. I was like, "Nope. I'll pass on that movie." Oh lord, I've started to ramble again.

I have seen the Born into Brothels on my Netflix list, but am not sure that I could handle it. I can pass on kids getting rich in some fantasy mumbo jumbo, but kids selling sex, make me queasy. I don't do well with that and I usually end up in tears like "Marley and Me" kind of tears. It breaks my heart. But because I think you are great and you recommend it, I will try and bite the bullet and watch it tomorrow and come back and report my thoughts if I can get past the first few minutes. :)

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle

I'm a terrible, terrible person.

I have tried to watch that movie twice, and both times I make it like 30-40 minutes in before I'm too disturbed to watch it anymore and I have to turn it off.

(Also, I kind of liked Slumdog Millionaire.)

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSciFi Dad

I liked Slum-dog Millionaire, mostly because I thought the children in it were awesome, but what bothered me is later hearing that the same children acting in the movie were still living in poverty, while the movie director is making millions, that upset me. If it weren't for those children, he wouldn't have a movie. Maybe it is not all true but that rubbed me the wrong way and it seems it is the Hollywood way.

Born into Brothels was, on the other hand, amazing! I actually follow one of the children who was in the documentary, Avijit. well, he has a page on flickr

This documentary was powerful, real and inspiring. Made me want to know more about how they all are, even today.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjen

You mean the Brothel movie doesn't have women singing in ridiculously high voices breaking out in dance routines while the misunderstood cool guy in sunglasses looks across his shoulder at them trying not to do such an uncool thing as dance and then suddenly explodes with a series of killer moves that make all the girls flutter their eyelashes at him and up the song by another octave?

Cheh... what the hell good is THAT?

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRW

I'll definitely have to check that movie out - if I can stand it!
Hope and dreams are free- thank God for that.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSybil Law

Just finally watched Slumdog Millionaire this weekend. LOVED it, although it was difficult for me to watch. Violence against kids... oy. The thing is, that might not be the India you know - but it exists, yes? Just like similar stories exist here in the United States among the most poor. With that many people squeezed onto a continent, it's not difficult to believe that children could fall through the cracks in such horrific ways.

This brothel movie?

Doesn't sound like something I could survive.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

Haven't seen either. No interest in Slumdog, but I'd like to see the other one. Maybe tonight. I'll let you know.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterB.E. Earl

I liked Slumbdog Millionaire, but I did not see it as a serious, groundbreaking documentary - rather, I saw it as satire or parody. I certainly did not push Manoj to see it (and he never did) because I did not feel it was important for him to see. In the same vein, I did not recommend it my American friends, either. Not sure if that makes sense.

That said, I was irritated by all the folks who jumped on the Jai Ho! Bandwagon and I quickly grew weary of its entry into pop phrase usage. And I was saddened by the folks who obviously felt they had some greater understanding of poverty by viewing that particular movie (the same folks who love to natter on about their favorite Indian buffet when they find out my husband is Indian ;-)

So yes, I think we can agree that Slumdog Millionaire was not any kind of groundbreaking documentary. However, it WAS the kind of movie that the usual movie-goer could actually stomach. Because the reality? Is heartbreaking and stomach-turning. Explains why Slumdog Millionaire busted the roof and Salaam, Bombay did not. Americans need their "triumph over adversity" storylines or dude, don't even BOTHER them.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercagey

I haven't seen slumdog but I did see Born Into Brothels. It's one of those movies that, four years later, still pops up in my head. I know it was intense and heartbreaking. I need to rewatch it, and I'll tell you what I think.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

@cagey I did see Salaam, Bombay and that movie broke my heart. And that was before I had a child. I can't even fathom what it would do to me now. I watched Slumdog Millionaire and it was, for lack of a better word, meh. Didn't love it or hate or have any strong feelings towards it. My father was born in India (pre-partition) so I've been back there to his town (Lucknow) and there was immense poverty right outside their lovely house. The juxtaposition of have and have nots in our part of the world is simply heartwrenching. I was 7 and played with all the other little girls there, I didn't know or care who they were. My mother made sure to bathe me twice that day. She's a snob, no doubt about that. Still is. I really want to see Born into Brothels, but I now face this horrible thing of not being able to watch children suffer after having a baby last year. It breaks my heart into such small tiny pieces, I fear it may never be whole again. Maybe I'll put on my big girl panties and try. Umm. Anyone have a pair of (clean) big girl panties I can borrow?

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZ

I must confess that I have never watched Slumdog Millionaire but I have watched Born Into Brothels at least twice. The first time was at a film festival when it first came out and I was still teaching. I guess it resonated with me because I could relate to the filmmaker. And then there's the other part. People have preconceived notions about my hometown. Yes, they are true at some level but they are not the full story.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKailyn

I have to admit I also enjoyed Slumdog. I also know better to think this is an accurate representation of all of India. Normal people working good jobs with average lives living in the burbs usually doesn't make for an entertaining movie though. So most movies tend to not focus on the happier places of where they are set.

I have seen the documentary, well most of it. It was very difficult to watch and it made me sad that such terrible things happen on the planet I inhabit. It is unthinkable to me that people could do that to children but sadly I am wrong. I know it happens not just in India but here in the United States too. I'd venture to say it happens in many countries all over the world.

I hope to see India someday, my father really liked it when he was there.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHockeymandad

I haven't seen either movie and, after your description, don't know that I will. Slumdog Millionaire just didn't grab my interest and I don't know that I can handle Born Into Brothels. I know there are horrible things that happen to children, but being confronted with it while being powerless to change it leaves a hole in my soul.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I didn't like Slumdog Millionaire as much as I thought I would. But Born into Brothels was amazing. And though it was so heartbreaking, I was overcome by the beautiful souls of those children.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnjali

I can't even watch Slumdog Millionaire, its very premise is against my moral fiber. blech.

I heard about Born Into Brothels right before it got to Netflix. As soon as it reached Netflix I had it sent to me and watched it. Love is obviously not the right word to apply to that movie, but it is one of my most favorite documentaries I've ever seen. It goes in deep, shows the reality, and doesn't give you a tidy ending. Because there isn't one. And that's VERY sad, but we have to know the real horrors that go on in our world that don't have Hollywood endings. But I was moved and inspired by those who dared to hope for better.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

PS - here are my original words about it:

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

I have seen born into brothels in bits and pieces over the years. I always end up analyzing such situations from a "macro" perspective.

At first, i begin to blame the Indian government for not properly allocating, the hundreds of Billions of Dollars earned from foreign investment, towards ensuring that such places/conditions don't exist. That leads me to thinking if India, as a country, is even structurally ready to transform these communities (and the people who run them). Are we just talking about the kids and giving them a choice? I would think so.

My mind then wanders into how I don't a central government type democracy doesn't really work for a country like India with over a Billion people. There are way too many levels/pockets of corruption. Too many differences in terms of religion, language, centuries old sub-culturers, etc. Their priorities just don't line up with each other. Therefore what one group of people may think is important, may not matter to another group. Maybe India should be a group of independently run provinces with a central puppet government, really acting as an international foreign policy arm.

I don't know. I just know that I have a very hard time watching movies like Born into Brothels without wanting to analyze, because without the analysis...all i see is pain and suffering. I am glad that you see joy, happiness, and courage.

Oh and be prepared for the best Jai Ho performance you have ever seen, when i come home today. :) Aaja Aaja shamianey ke taley...

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertariq

Haven't seen either movie, probably won't. I have no interest in "Slumdog" and the other one, well I wouldn't see much through the tears I'd certainly be shedding (I can't even watch wildlife documentaries because it upsets me to see animals killed, even to feed other animals. I'm delicate like that).

There is absolutely some photographic talent among those children, though. I hope the project and the documentary help at least some of them get out before they lose their hope.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFinn

"joy can live anywhere"
i just like the way that sounds

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjustsomethoughts

I saw that movie when it came out in theaters. And OOF is exactly right.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Grace

@Dave2, Yes, people do rely on stereotypes too often. I think that stems from an issue of priorities... it takes energy to want to know what people or not. It's no necessarily sad to me, but it's definitely not my path.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Janelle, I should have clarified: the children are not the prostitutes, their mothers are.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@SciFi Dad, It's okay, you're still cool. It's not an easy movie to watch, I was yelling, Nonono at the screen at the ten minute mark.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@jen, Oh, THANK YOU for that link, so awesome...

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@RW, That was a chillingly accurate description of every single Bollywood movie I've ever seen.

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Sybil Law, You should watch it, especially because you're all into art and stuff. :-)

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Miss Britt, The kids aren't prostitutes. I always feel funny replying to your comment after we've talked about something in person. So. How's the weather...

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@B.E. Earl, You might like Slumdog, it's not so bad. I think you should watch it.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@cagey, I think you just verbalized exactly why I was bothered by Slumdog, "I was saddened by the folks who obviously felt they had some greater understanding of poverty by viewing that particular movie." To add to that, I think the commercial success of it was more bothersome to me also because of the whole triumph over adversity issue... you said it better than I.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Faiqa, Or me. whatever.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Molly, Looking forward to it.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Z, I don't think your mom is in a minority on what appears to be snobbish behavior. And I know what you mean about being heartbroken once you have a child. I feel the same exact way.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Kailyn, Yes. Yes, there is joy everywhere. And people can live there their entire lives in a place that others have preconceived notions about and still be *happy* and *good*. Imagine that.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Hockeymandad, Dude. You guys should totally come with us next time.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Lisa, I understand... it was hard to watch. Does it help if I clarify that the children themselves were not sex workers, but were the children of sex workers?

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Anjali, Exactly.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

I have no desire to watch any of that. But do you think that if maybe you didn't know about this part of India, that the part that Aladdin was made about exists too? Because I really loved that movie and you totally ruined it for me.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAvitable

@Poppy, That Hollywood ending is one of the off putting things about slumdog... oh, and how cool that you wrote that post over years before we met. Love that. I don't know *why*, but I do.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@tariq, Heh. I'm prepared, buddy. Awwwkward.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@justsomethoughts, I know, right? Me, too.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Finn, If you scroll up through the comments someone posted one of the kid's recent Flickr streams... amazing. You should check it out.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Miss Grace, Yep. I didn't even know about it when it came out in theaters. What's THAT about...

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Avitable, Really? Aladdin? India? What the hell is wrong with you? I know you are not this white in person, so...

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Faiqa, I know, I know. Jeez.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAvitable

You were certainly not the only one who didn't like Slumdog Millionaire. In fact we didn't even finish watching the whole thing.

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Spencer

I thought there were parts of Slumdog that were very disturbing, but I couldn't figure out why I was disturbed. I know there are people that live like that and worse, but to explain it to my kids really sucks. If I had netflix I would order your movie, but alas...

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

@Kevin Spencer, It's good to nkow I'm not alone on this. :-)

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

@Becca, I am dreading the time when I have to have those conversations. Mostly because I have no logical explanation for why it's that way in the first place

August 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

A movie like "Born into Brothels" makes me wonder why so many keep up this farce of religion and this God that cares about went there.
I spend alot of my time caring about and for people...most of my time. The majority of the time, I have found that many people face suffering through no fault of their own.

I can tell you without a doubt, whether or not there is a God, the concept has been irrelevant and at times detrimental to my purpose.

Given most of us want to help each other, I say that we should spend more time believing in each other and buidling each other and less wasting it on worshipping imaginary beings.

August 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZ

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