Kalighat , in central Kolkata, is one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres in the country. As is the case with many other such destinations, right next to it there is a red-light area, one of oldest in the city. For at least more than a century, the sacred and the sacrilegious have existed side by side.
The Kalighat red-light area, located in the midst of one of the busiest residential parts of the city, is a shadowy, enigmatic world that stands on the periphery of mainstream society, which neither accepts it nor completely denies its existence. It is a nocturnal world of labyrinthine narrow lanes and cubbyhole dwellings; a world that appears sinister, brutal and violent, with its own rules and logic. It is a society whose very existence is unsettling to the “respectable” and whose inhabitants are trapped in it forever branded by a mark of shame created by the world outside.
In this grey world that exists outside the purview of middle-class morality, where no differentiation is made between the coins of the villain and the virtuous, a group of young boys and girls grew up with hopes and aspirations that until recently seemed likely to remain confined to their dreams. The film-maker Bipuljit Basu came across these youngsters while working on his short film Midnight Blues , the story of a little boy growing up in a brothel. They had formed a group called Cam-On and were making small films on the lives of people living in the red-light area and putting them up on the Internet. Basu decided to collaborate with them for his film and roped them in at every stage of the production, making members of Cam-On the line producers of Midnight Blues . This project is perhaps the first “participatory” film to be made in the red-light area of Kolkata and has opened up a window of hope and opportunity for these young people.
“From script to make-up, location hunting to grooming artistes, Cam-On members became an integral part of the film. This is a huge experience both for them and for me. For those boys and girls, this is their first professional project with veterans of film production and is a massive boost to their confidence. For me, it is a thrill to make what is possibly the first ever participatory film in India,” Basu told Frontline .
“We are often stigmatised for hailing from the red-light area. We want people to be aware that there is talent here as well and acknowledge that it is not just the dregs of society who come from here. There are many good people here who can go far with the right guidance and direction. Working with Bipuljit da is allowing us to dream a new dream for our future,” said Raju Mondal, president of Cam-On. He is the oldest member of the group and has been a mentor and a teacher to many of the children of the Kalighat red-light area. He pointed out that though there were many non-governmental organisations working with sex workers’ children, nobody but those who grew up there could understand the life and the problems of the community. Cam-On hopes to identify talent among the children and young people living there and include them in its future projects. The group’s membership has been growing in the last couple of years: from six youngsters when it started out to 25 now.
In those little hole-in-the-wall rooms where a large, high bed occupies most of the space, members of the Cam-On group, like all the other children of brothels, grew up with the love of struggling mothers who refused to give them up. There is a painful yearning in them to be accepted for who they are and to not be judged for where they come from.
In many ways, the formation of Cam-On is what has saved the children from going down the path of self-destruction in such an environment. “Kids our age after a point tend to stray and fall victim to drug addiction or get into bad company. Just as we avoided those pitfalls and formed Cam-On, we want to help other children do the same. Most important is that Cam-On allows us to express our problems. Through our films we express our pain, our hurt, our little victories and defeats. It is all our creation,” said 22-year-old Mousumi Shaw, who is studying mass communication.
Initially, before the idea of forming a group came into being, the boys and girls mostly amused themselves by shooting images using their mobile phones. Their common passion for cinema brought them together, and they decided to take up film-making seriously. The Cam-On group came into being even though they had not yet named themselves. They pooled their resources to buy a second-hand video camera for Rs.11,000 and, with the new equipment, made their most successful film (in terms of viewership) to date, Poltu’s Life , which is a short film on the travails of a young boy growing up in the red-light area of Kalighat. The role was played by the 12-year-old son of a sex worker. “Our biggest encouragement was the popularity of Poltu’s Life on YouTube [uploaded on February 5, 2017]. Till date it has received around 18,000 views. This was a huge thing for us and strengthened our resolve to not give up,” said Rabin Bag, who is a graduate in education. So far Cam-On has uploaded six films, made between 2017 and 2019, on YouTube: Poltu’s Life , Ancient Ring , Speechless , Love Decision , Amader Chhoke Elaakar Khobor (“The news of the neighbourhood from our eyes”, which is a documentary) and Wish . “All our films have a social message and are not more than 20 minutes long,” said 26-year-old Rupesh Chaturvedi, who is interested in the editing aspect of cinema.
It was not just love for cinema that was the driving force behind the formation of Cam-On; it was also a desperate need to project the reality of their lives. “We grew up here and faced all the usual problems a child can face growing up in a red-light area: the abuse, the drunks, being kept down, and so on. When we started watching movies, particularly Bollywood films, we realised that what was being shown was not the reality that we face. So we resolved to depict our reality through the films we made with Cam-On,” Chaturvedi added.
The youth of the Kalighat red-light area realise that their participation in Midnight Blues may be a huge step towards their social inclusion, so when the local political goons initially created problems for Basu and his crew, Cam-On stepped in and, with the support of the red-light community, forced the hoodlums to back off. “We told them clearly that we would not allow them to interfere as the future of the children of this community was at stake,” said Raju Mondal.
One of the main problems that children of red-light areas face in the outside world is the stigma attached to their background. The exposure and recognition Midnight Blues will give them will be a crucial step in the long struggle for social acceptance for the children of Kalighat. “We hope to make people understand that the children here are like all other children. We do not want the children of today to face the same problems we faced when we were growing up here. Getting an opportunity to work on this film is a huge learning experience for us,” said 26-year-old Ranajit Majumder.
If the community of the red-light area was initially reluctant to be a part of the project, under Cam-On’s influence it too began to get involved in different ways. For example, Shampa Saha and Kalpana Jana are overseeing the make-up of the actresses. “There is a particular way in which we girls do our make-up when we go out. We ensure that the make-up of the actresses remains authentic,” said Shampa. Kalpana pointed out that it was Cam-On’s presence in the project that drew her to it. “My son acted as Poltu in Cam-On’s film Poltu’s Life . It was one of the proudest moments of my life to realise he had so much talent. It gave me hope that with Cam-On’s help my boy will be able to find his way in the world. Cam-On helps us and we help Cam-On. These are all our children, our little brothers and sisters,” she said.
Such was the cooperation and involvement of the sex workers’ community that on some nights the actresses themselves stood in “the line” on the road, with the sex workers dropping to the background but keeping a protective eye on them. They had trained their wards so well that even local residents were fooled. “They allowed us to shoot the film at night and even enter the most interior parts of the area,” said Basu, acknowledging their help at the cost of their business.
One unique thing about the Kalighat red-light area is that the criminal elements there do not control the sex workers and hence cannot always exert their influence. “The women of the area are independent and self-contained, which is the reason they can stand up to the hoodlums and the political bullies. Their sense of empowerment allowed me to film there.” Their independence is why something like Cam-On could come into existence. The level of education is also considerably higher in Kalighat compared with other red-light areas.
With Midnight Blues , Cam-On no longer remains just a medium of self-expression for the youth of Kalighat but is a vehicle of progress and emancipation. The members have recently applied for the outfit to be registered as a “society” and have big plans for the future. “We may in the future make it a private trust or a private limited company working on film production,” said Raju Mondal.
Subhojit Maity, who is studying philosophy at Jadavpur University, said that one idea is to venture into theatre. “Doing theatre is also an exercise for mental health. In our community, we see many children suffering from depression. We are thinking of forming a theatre group and doing workshops,” he said. Also, the group does not wish to restrict itself to the red-light community but wants to coordinate with other marginalised, poor people, particularly in rural areas. “For so long we worked without any support. Even our equipment was bought second-hand. With Midnight Blues , we are getting paid for our work for the first time. Through Cam-On we want to reach out and extend the kind of help we never got,” said Mousumi Shaw.
Basu also has big plans for the film after it is completed. He will be taking it to international film festivals and plans to screen it in universities, chambers of commerce and consulates. Whether the film wins critical acclaim or not, it has already achieved something very special: it has given recognition to talent that would otherwise have remained unnoticed; it has opened a window of opportunity for those who have been banging on closed doors all their lives; and, most important, it has injected hope and enthusiasm in a community that has always been shrouded in darkness and despair.