Through the Eyes of Children

In 2004, a very small-budget, independent film called “I Am” caught some worldwide buzz. It was awarded Grand Prize at the international Children’s Film Festival in Athens, came to the attention of the Australian press where it was ran as a major story in The Age newspaper, and was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey show.

But “I Am” was not any ordinary independent movie. Not only was the film made entirely by children – directed by Ashikul Islam and filmed by Sahiful Mondal and starring all children – but these young award-winning filmmakers are all residents of a home for destitute boys in Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta).

Sahiful Mondal with camera

The boys live at the Muktaneer Home, which means “Open Sky” in Hindi. Muktaneer is an initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD), founded in 1978 to assist vulnerable children, with a focus mainly on education.

Then in 1995, an explosion in a Kolkata fireworks factory killed 23 children who were working there illegally. CCD Secretary, and now surrogate “father” to these boys, Swapan Mukherjee, was outraged – especially after the factory refused responsibility for the tragedy. Ultimately, Swapan took them to court and eventually won a judgment for compensation for all the victims’ families. It was the start of CCD’s move to a child protection focus, and in the 12 years since Swapan has focused on rescuing such children from bonded labor, trafficking, the sex trade, or simply a life on the streets.

Me & Swapan

These situations of child trafficking, indentured servitude, factory labor and the sex trade comprise an “industry” that millions of children in India fall victim to, and which essentially amount to nothing more than slavery, 200 years after legislation was passed which made slavery illegal. And this is slavery at its ugliest, its most evil and heart-breaking core – slavery of the most vulnerable among us: children.

When I visited Kolkata and Muktaneer Home last week, Swapan told me about his start into investigating child trafficking and rescuing as many of these children as he could. In the mid 1990s he was in Delhi, where he found four street children huddled together in tears. He wanted to know what had happened to him. After some time, the children were able to identify the men who had trafficked them to Delhi from their home village. Swapan reported them to the police and then traveled to the children’s village and found their parents. But instead of leaving it at that, simply returning the children to their home, Swapan organized a four-member team and spent six months in that village, the Murshidabad District, doing a door to door household survey to try and find out about missing children. In those six months his team surveyed 1400 households, and from that effort 364 children who had been trafficked were found and returned home.

During his efforts Swapan contacted Amnesty International, Equality Now, and other human rights organizations which assisted him. The Indian government began to take action. In 2000, Swapan opened the Muktaneer Children’s Home so that the children who did not have a home to return to, or whose families were too poor to care for them, would have a place to live. Although Muktaneer is just for boys, CCD also works with other organizations who provide similar homes for girls who have been rescued from indentured servitude or brothels.

As Swapan continued his work investigating child trafficking, he was photographing and filming the children’s conditions, their lives, their rescues, for proof and documentation. The boys who came to live at Muktaneer were fascinated by the camera, and soon told Swapan that they wanted to document and film their own lives, themselves. A movie legend was born.

The boys spy on me while
I watch their newest movie

Sahiful Mondal, who filmed that first movie “I Am” in 2004, is now 13 years old and has filmed or directed three other movies since. Sahiful is very tall for his age, an extremely attractive bright-eyed boy who is full of boundless, optimistic energy and always has a smile on his face. He has traveled to Athens, Cyprus and Melbourne in association with his films. He has come a long way from his early childhood. After his father died of tuberculosis when he was three years old, Sahiful began working in agricultural labor at a very early age due to his mother’s mental illness. The backbreaking work earned him the equivalent of 20 cents per day. Because the agricultural work was seasonal, in the off season Sahiful worked tending goats. He earned two portions of rice per day for this work. One day when he lost a goat under his herding watch, his employer beat him and refused him food for two days.

At age six and a half, Sahiful came to Muktaneer, and today his life is very different. He began receiving four good meals a day, was given his own bed, and was allowed to play for the first time in his life.

“Before I lived here, I didn’t study, I didn’t go to school,” Sahiful told me when I met him. “When I came here, I can go to school. I learned about photo and film. Swapan gave me a camera, and I took one photo, and from there I learned all about filmmaking. I love it!”

But it is also a team effort to Sahiful. When I asked him what made him the happiest about all the attention that “I Am,” and the other films, have received, he told me that he enjoyed the attention and people talking to him. But what made him the happiest about it?

“When we got first prize, all the boys here were very happy,” Sahiful replied, a huge grin on his face and his eyes sparkling. It’s definitely one for all here, and the accolades are for them all.

Sahiful wants to be a professional filmmaker when he grows up – and after meeting him and seeing his movies, I have absolutely no doubt that one day you will all see his name at the Cannes or Academy Awards. He is determined, and obviously very passionate about his new-found love of movie-making.

“It was my dream to make a movie,” said Sahiful.

Me, Swapan, & the boys of Muktaneer

For more information about CCD and the Muktaneer Home for Boys, visit their website or email Swapan Mukherjee.

About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.

Posted on March 25, 2007, in children, India, orphans, shelley seale and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Swapan Mukherjee

    Dear Shelley,

    It is a nice write up. Please put the CCD web site and e-mail id at the bottom of the story.

    Best regards,

    Swapan Mukherjee

  2. congratulations for wining the prize
    Bimal Rai

  3. As Dir. of the American Arm of CCD I am happy to announce that we just won our 501 (c) 3 tax exempt status last week!


  4. We are working on the site and will have it up soon. Fundraising will begin in earnest. I’ve been looking over the numbers published by the Govt. of India and theres no way, I just dont believe that child labor drops from 75 million kids, to 12.6 M kids in such a short time – the law passed in 2006 is not going to do it.

    We need to get things going. I will post the new site when it is done.

  5. Congratulations! And thanks for the update!

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