Avijit Halder from Born into Brothels

Avijit Halder at 11 years old.
Photo from Kids with Cameras.

It makes sense to me to start off the “What Happened to the Subject?” series with a child who starred in a documentary, because it seems to me that we can see greater changes than with an adult subject. And, boy, has Avijit Halder, one of the kids who was in Born into Brothels, had his life totally transformed by the documentary he was in. “I wouldn’t be the person I am if it weren’t for Born into Brothels,” says Halder, now a junior at New York University, where he studies film. He lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “I’m doing very well. I am happy.”

Although Halder grew up in the bowels of Calcutta, he was clearly the most promising of the kids depicted in that film about the children of prostitutes; he was already showing proficiency at photography in the documentary. He has maintained that trajectory. Soon after the documentary was released in 2004, Halder was given financial support that allowed him to attend a high school in New Hampshire for a year, followed by two years in Utah, where it wasn’t as bad as you’d think, he says, except for the lack of noise, which he had come accustomed to in India.

Halder got a grant from Tisch to study film, and Kids with Cameras, the group that Brothels co-director Zana Briski started, pays the lion’s share of his tuition. But Halder isn’t coasting. He has classes from 9 to 5, and then he works from 7 to 11 in low-paying campus jobs to help make money to pay for a trip back home to India, which he hasn’t visited in over a year.

Halder admits he misses home, and that he wishes that “NYU was there, so that I could also eat my grandmother’s food, be with my friends and go to Tisch.” But, he recognizes, “if you want something better in life, you have to sacrifice something.”

He is still in touch with many of the kids from Brothels, most of whom are also doing well, going to universities in India and getting married, although Halder says there are two Brothels alumni who have slipped back into the hard life of the slums.

Even if he had not been in the film, Halder says that he “would have been successful, but not as successful.” In fact, he wants to clarify a misperception that the film has perpetuated. His late mother was not a prostitute, Halder says. She was actually a teacher in the red light district, and she had made sure that Halder was getting a good education. (He also reports that his father, who was addicted to drugs, is doing better now.)

Another interesting clarification that Halder makes is that he and his friends weren’t aware that they were being filmed as subjects in a documentary. Does he feel that he was exploited? No. “It has benefited all of our lives,” he says. “It’s all justified.”

“I didn’t have a voice then,” he adds. “Even though I wanted to be an artist, there would have been no way to become one. It gave me a voice. It gave me a life.”

Check out Avijit Halder’s videos on YouTube.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen