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From brothel baby to film star

A child born into a brothel in Calcutta’s biggest red-light district has reversed his fortunes and is studying for a degree at one of America’s top film schools. The Oscar-winning documentary, Born into Brothels, literally turned Avijit Halder’s life around.   Now 20, Avijit was one of eight children featured in documentary film, about the lives of the children of Indian sex workers.

Co-directed by New York-based photographer, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, Born into Brothels won the 77th annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.   Each of the children was given a camera and taught how to take photographs to document their lives and their surroundings in Sonagachi - Calcutta's red light district. Avijit’s father was a drug addict while his mother was constantly ill. She died when Avijit was barely in his teens. The 2004 film showed the boy’s shredded home life. After the film came out, the makers set up a charity to help the children who featured in it pay for their education. The children were encouraged to develop their photography. Their pictures were shown in Calcutta and New York and auctioned at Sotheby's to raise funds. "Born into Brothels changed my life,” said Avijit. “When the film was being made, we were not aware of what was going on... We had no idea what a documentary was,” he told the BBC. “We only knew Bollywood films," 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. For the first time I realised that I had a voice and people want to know about my life story. “

By that time he had learned to speak English and had been in school for some five years. So when he was given the opportunity to study in America, he grabbed it. In 2007, he decided to take up filmmaking as a career, while attending a workshop at New York University (NYU). With financial help from the charity and a university grant, Avijit is now working for his degree at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. He also works part-time to save some money to visit his family in India. "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. Not all the Born into Brothels children were so lucky. One of the girls has returned to prostitution in Sonagachi. Avijit plans to make a film about her story.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children