Destiny put a camera in Avijit Halder’s hands in 2004. Today, the boy born into a Sonagachhi brothel in Kolkata is framing his own destiny with it, as an assistant director in Hollywood.
The story of Halder, who was among the eight children of sex workers featured in the Oscar-winning 2004 documentary ‘Born Into Brothels’ directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, has taken incredible turns in the nine years since. He went to the US to study in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. Now, armed with a New York University (NYU) degree, Halder is a busy man on the sets of ‘Basmati Blues’, a musical on a US genetics company exploiting Indian farmers starring Donald Sutherland and Brie Larson. He is, however, yearning to be home for the Pujas and spend quality time with his sister and granny.
Halder’s road to Hollywood, and a new life, was through the photographs he took as part of the documentary. He stood out with his snapshots on life in Sonagachhi, some of them images of the mess of his own home. The documentary-makers subsequently set up a charity, Kids With Cameras, to help Halder and the other kids with their education. Photography exhibitions were held in Kolkata and New York and an auction in Sotheby’s raised funds. Halder was invited to a photo talent competition in Amsterdam.
He applied and got admission in a school in New Hampshire with the funds raised. In 2008, the prestigious NYU accepted his application for its film-making course and gave him a grant.
“I came to the US in 2005 and was accepted in a New England, preppy, outdoor high school in the white mountains of New Hampshire,” Halder told TOI. “I had quite a bit of difficulty with the accent. But I remember every time I would learn a new word or hear a word that sounded different, I would go the bathroom, and practice in front of a mirror till I got it down. And, of course, there was a huge culture shock. My preconceived notion about America was shattered… After graduating from high school, I was torn between medicine and film. I chose NYU where I could perhaps do a double major. In the first year, though, I fell in love with film,” he added.
Few members of his family are left in Bengal — his father was a drug addict and his mother died in his teens — but Halder is extremely homesick. However, Halder is not dazzled by Hollywood. “I am not a big Hollywood fan in terms of filmmaking. But it’s a good form of entertainment when I am bored. My favorite filmmakers are Polish director Krzysztof Kielowski, Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar Wai and Roman Polanski. I also look up to Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. Some of the new-age Indian filmmakers like Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap and Qaushiq also impress me,” he said.