Indian orphans weave award-winning movie magic

KOLKATA, India (Reuters Life!) - When 10-year-old Sahiful Mondal from a children’s shelter in eastern India won an international film award three years ago, many thought it was just a flash in the pan. Now he is 14 and with four accolades.

Social worker Swapan Mukherjee (2nd R) shows still photographs from a short film to children in the eastern city of Kolkata May 29, 2008. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

His success has highlighted the work of Muktaneer (Freedom House), a home for orphaned and homeless boys on the outskirts of Kolkata that is making a name for itself at international festivals for its documentaries made by children.

The boys’ films have explored issues from HIV discrimination to environmental degradation and child poverty.

Muktaneer is run by the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD), a charity fighting to save children in the eastern Indian state West Bengal from abuse, poverty and trafficking.

Every year 2.1 million children in India die before their fifth birthday, mainly because of poverty-induced malnourishment, according to U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

The International Labor Organization said trafficking of Indian children is rampant. Victims end up in child labor or in the sex industry.

But a few lucky ones end up in Muktaneer.


The centre’s first film “Aami” (I Am), directed by 12-year-old orphan Ashikul, won the Grand Prize in 2004 at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Greece.

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Their most recent winner was “Amra Dekhi” (We See), which won awards in Finland, Iran, Australia and U.S. festivals in 2007. It was directed by Mondal when he was 13.

“I used to paint and write stories. When I got a handycam I translated my ideas into a movie capturing the wishes and wonder of kids like us,” Mondal said.

Mondal has also made a film, “The Inner Eye”, on the social discrimination faced by someone with AIDS.

“I don’t just do it by myself. We actually make films collectively here. We ask questions in our films and they reflect our aspirations,” said Mondal.

“In my films I have wondered how planes fly so high and why trees are taller than us,” he said.

In “Amra Dekhi” (We See), the children portrayed a world where the heads of various nations are making tall promises to children at a gathering. But in the same room as the gathering, a TV broadcasts the stark reality of poor children.

“It occurred to me that we can explore the talents of these boys by asking them to make films,” said Swapan Mukherjee, the founder of the centre who introduced the children to filmmaking

“I thought we can also know about their viewpoints by what they make.”

The success of Muktaneer is appreciated by the Bengali film industry based in Kolkata, which has produced many internationally acclaimed art-house films over the decades.

“India is a heterogeneous country but mainstream films are always homogeneous,” avant-garde Bengali filmmaker Gautam Ghose said.

“Different expressions are essential to break the monotony and so efforts like this by the children are more than welcome. Digital technology and handycams have democratized filmmaking and with right guidance it can weave real movie magic,” Ghose said.

Editing by Miral Fahmy