Monday, March 02, 2009

Girl in Oscar film became a prostitute,...,194219,00.html?

DON'T let Slumdog Millionaire mislead you into thinking that there are fairy-tale endings for most of India's street children.

At least two with such street experience - one a journalist who was from the slums, and the other an Oscar-winner turned prostitute - feel this way.

Newsweek journalist Sudip Mazumdar, who revisited the slum district of Tangra where he spent his childhood years more than 35 years ago, said little has changed - save for a few more colour television sets in some huts.

In a column in this week's edition, he said: 'People keep praising the film's 'realistic' depiction of slum life in India.

'But it's no such thing. Slum life is a cage. It robs you of confidence in the face of the rich and the advantaged.

'It steals your pride, deadens your ambition, limits your imagination and psychologically cripples you whenever you step outside the comfort zone of your own neighbourhood. Most people in the slums never achieve a fairy-tale ending.'

He was lucky enough to be given his first break by a local newspaper publisher who hired him as a copy boy and proofreader.

Not so lucky

But Preeti Mukherjee was not so lucky.

She tasted success at the Oscars but slipped into vice a year later, reported Times of India.

In 2005, Preeti was one of nine children who were part of the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, directed by Ms Zana Briski.

The film won 20 international awards.

Now, Preeti, who goes by the name Puja, works in Asia's largest red light district, Sonagachhi.

She got sucked into the sex trade just a year after her brush with the Oscars. She was barely in her teens.

'It seems like a fairy tale now. I still see it in my dreams. I get goosebumps when I remember the heart-stopping moment when the award was announced.

'All of us kept screaming with joy. Zana aunty made sure we, too, went along to collect the statuette.

'My head was swimming, there were so many eyes on us, the deafening applause, so many cameras flashing...' Preeti recalled.

While the children were in Los Angeles, Ms Briski and others tried their best to help them lead new lives.

Preeti, who was in high school then, and the rest, got an offer to stay back in the US and study. Some did. She backed out.

'Aunty (Zana) gave a lot of money by cheque to my mother and asked her to release me, but she was unwilling.

'I am a girl and an only child, and my mother wouldn't let go. Call it family pressure if you will. It's quite simple, really,' Preeti said, with a dismissive shrug and a short laugh.

'So, you see me here.'

Still in touch

Abhijit, one of the kids in the film, now studies in New York University. Another girl goes to school in the same city. Preeti is in touch with both of them.

Two others are studying at Future Hope, run by a charitable trust. One is married while another, who was with an internationally funded non-governmental organisation, has disappeared.

Dressed in jeans and a trendy shirt, Preeti could pass for any other college student, until the whiff of smoke and alcohol in her breath hits you.

She is adamant about staying in the sex-trade.

'At this age, I have a flat, a laptop, costly phones and plenty of money. What do I lack?' she asked.

'Zana aunty and I are in touch by e-mail. She was upset that I, too, had joined the trade like my mother, something she wanted to save me from.

'But this trade has really paid off for me.'

A sign of her 'prosperity' - she has rented rooms in Prem Kamal, one of the most expensive Sonagachhi buildings.

Mother Rakhi lives in the opposite building.

Preeti pays for her living expenses.

Ms Rakhi says she wanted a 'normal' life for Preeti. She still has a fading photo of Preeti with the Oscar statuette stuck on a wall.

'That is all I have left of her...' she said, tears in her eyes.

There is no clear answer as to how and why Preeti became a sex worker. Police records say she was rescued from a sex syndicate while a minor and sent to a juvenile home.

She was later handed to her mother by the state child welfare committee.

Police say she's now part of a major sex syndicate that involves extremely powerful people and it is very unlikely they will let her go even if she wants to.

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