Page last updated at 02:20 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

From a Calcutta brothel to a New York university

By Salim Rizvi
New York

Avijit Halder
Mr Halder is now enjoying life in the US

Born into a brothel in the Indian city of Calcutta, Avijit Halder's life has undergone a dramatic transformation.

The 20-year-old is currently pursuing a degree at one of the top film schools in the US.

It all started with the filming of an Oscar-winning documentary, Born into Brothels, which dealt with the lives of the children of Indian sex workers.

Avijit Halder was one of eight children of sex workers who featured in the 2004 documentary film, co-directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman.

Kids with cameras

As part of the documentary, children were taught how to take photographs to document their lives and their surroundings in Sonagachi - Calcutta's red light district.

The objective was to show how art could transform their lives.

Richard Litvin
I think he is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional individual and I can see him thriving in any number of situations
Prof Richard Litvin

"When the film Born into Brothels was being made, we were not aware of what was going on... We had no idea what a documentary was. We only knew Bollywood films," Avijit said.

The film showed Avijit at his home. Life here was a mess because his father was a drug addict while his mother was constantly ill. She died when Avijit was barely in his teens.

The film-makers set up a charity called Kids with Cameras, and this helped the eight children who featured in the documentary to get help with their education.

Along with their schooling, the children were encouraged to develop a passion for photography. Their photos received a lot of attention and exhibitions were held in Calcutta and in New York. Auctions were even held at Sotheby's to raise funds.

Avijit was the star of those exhibitions and was soon invited to participate in a photo talent contest in Amsterdam, Holland. He was getting the taste of things to come.

"I am really proud of Avijit. He has done tremendously well, considering where he comes from. He is just like any other kid. He is always helping others too and helps us raise money to help other kids," said Mr Kauffman.

Avijit's journey from Calcutta's red light district to New York is a compelling story.

"Born into Brothels changed my life. In 2005, I watched the film for the first time, after it had won the Oscar.

"And it was the most memorable day of my life. It was for the first time I realised that I had a voice and people want to know about my life story.

"By that time I had already learned to speak English and had been in school for some five years or so. I thought it was a pretty inspiring story," Avijit recalls.

Unsettling change

So when he was given the opportunity to study in America, he grabbed it.

Photograph of street children by Avijit Halder
Mr Halder's photographs have won international acclaim

He applied to American schools on his own, eventually getting accepted.

The talented boy from Sonagachi departed for America in 2005. Kids with Cameras funded his studies in a New Hampshire school.

For Avijit, the peaceful landscape was an unsettling change from the cacophony of Calcutta.

But within months he took to his new lifestyle - even learning how to ski in the process.

In 2007, he decided to take up film-making as a career, while attending a workshop at New York University (NYU).

"Film-making was fun, I was happy," he said.

"My professors appreciated my work, and that gave me confidence. But I wasn't sure if I would be accepted into the course and how would I pay for it? The course was so expensive."

With financial help from Kids with Cameras and a grant from NYU, Avijit is now pursuing his degree at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television.

"I am very fortunate to get into the school and I do not take it for granted. And that's why I work very hard," says Avijit.

Richard Litvin teaches him, and like many others is fascinated by his intriguing background.

"When Avijit came to the summer class he was an incredibly curious, alive kid. I got to know him.

"Later when he came to NYU to study film, he was in my class. I think he is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional individual and I can see him thriving in any number of situations."

New Lifestyle

Despite his disadvantages, fiercely ambitious Avijit is quickly learning the ropes of film-making and the American lifestyle.

Still from Born into Brothels film
Born into Brothels dramatically depicted the life of sex workers

At school, he feels he should be treated just like any other student on campus.

He is compiling a book of photographs he took in India and America and is learning Spanish and French.

Avijit works part-time to save some money to visit his family in India - his grandmother does not understand what he does in America. His father is recovering from addiction.

Not all the children who featured in Born into Brothels have been so lucky. One of the girls - whose name has been withheld to protect her identity - has returned to prostitution in Sonagachi.

Mr Kauffman says he tried to dissuade her but in vain.

"We can only do so much. I tried over and over to talk to her and her family... But she ended up becoming a prostitute. It is so sad," he says.

But the charity is helping other children, recently funding a girl named Kochi to pursue studies in the US.

It has also started a school in Calcutta, called Hope House, in partnership with the Buntain Foundation. Some 250 children will get education and training for various vocations.

As for Avijit, he plans to make a film about the girl who had to return to prostitution in adulthood.

And while he realises the importance of the education he is getting in America, he wishes he didn't have to leave his home.

"I wish New York City was Calcutta, so I could be in my home city," he laments.

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