| Ross Kauffman (left) and Zana Briski with their Oscars on Monday. (Reuters)
Calcutta/Washington, Feb. 28: A bittersweet slice of Calcutta life stole some of the spotlight at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre late last night.
As best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio announced that the Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature award had gone to Born into Brothels, the applause from the Los Angeles theatre could hardly have caused a ripple in the sordid pocket of central Calcutta it had been set in.
Yet, the tale of triumph about 'the empowerment of the children of Sonagachhi sex workers through photography', by Manhattan-based Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, has touched the lives of not only the nine kids featured in the film, but of many more who share their fate.
Zana's call to one of the film's stars, young Pooja, certainly made her Monday. 'Little angel, we have won', she told me,' smiled the Class IX student of a Shovabazar school. 'I immediately called up the others to pass on the good news. We are all so happy,' she told The Telegraph.
After shooting 170 hours of the Sonagachhi kids discovering a whole new world through the looking glass, in 2000-01, Zana and Ross trimmed it to 85 minutes and won glory at 30 festivals (including the audience choice award at Sundance) before the Oscar night.
'We thank the kids, they are watching in Calcutta,' Zana, the British-born filmmaker and photographer, said in her brief acceptance speech.
In a touch of irony ' that so marks the lives of those Born into Brothels ' the film may never travel to Calcutta. 'Unfortunately, we are not showing the film in India in order to protect the kids and the women's identities. Their safety is our first priority. The kids are in school now and doing well, and we would prefer as little exposure in India as possible,' Ross had written to The Telegraph weeks before the 77th Academy Awards.
'While shooting the film, Zana had promised the mothers of the kids she would not screen the film in this country,' said Asha Maheshwari, who helped the duo with the project. The kids, however, have seen the film.
'When they came recently, they showed it to us on their laptop,' revealed Pooja.
Zana and Ross will be returning to Calcutta next month to set up a special school for the children of Sonagachhi. Zana told reporters after receiving the award: 'We are planning to build a school in Calcutta specifically for the children of prostitutes and we are going back to look for land.'
M.M. Maheshwari, Asha's husband, said: 'We are looking for five to 10 acres of land in Rajarhat. They (Zana and Ross) have already collected half-a-million dollars for the school. Once they come in April, they are going to finalise the project that could change the future of these kids and many more.'
There are no screen barriers for the other Oscar contestant with a Calcutta connection, The Little Terrorist, directed by Ashvin Kumar, son of fashion designer Ritu Kumar who started out from the city and still has a house in Alipore.
The 15-minute film set on the India-Pakistan border, which got tantalisingly close to Hollywood's biggest prize in the live action short films category, lost to a British production about a single mother's travails with her baby.
Ashvin was resplendent at the Kodak theatre in ethnic clothes and zoomed to TV screens across the globe when the award was called from among the audience in a new format for this year for presentations.
Although the hope that The Little Terrorist might secure a golden statuette for an Indian film for the first time was dashed, it is poised to be the first short film to win a theatrical release throughout the country.
India-born director Manoj Night Shyamalan's The Village also lost the Oscar by a whisker to Finding Neverland in the category of best score for music. The film, Shyamalan's latest, is about the simplicity of an isolated community at the end of the 19th century.
The hype in India last week about a purported invitation to Aishwarya Rai to be presenter at the Oscars, triggered by her associate Gurinder Chadha, turned out to be unfounded as reported earlier by this newspaper.