25 Feb 2009,
Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey & Caesar Mandal,
Times of India
KOLKATA: When A R Rahman walked up to receive the golden Oscar statuette, her eyes misted over. Preeti Mukherjee knows exactly how it feels. Four years ago, she was on the same stage at Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre, where she, too, had hugged the statuette and cried tears of joy. She hasn’t missed a single awards ceremony since. On Monday, she woke up in the wee hours to catch the live telecast — before starting the day’s grind at Sonagachhi.
Preeti, who goes by the name Puja in Asia’s largest red light district, had got sucked into the sex trade just a year after her brush with the Oscars.
In 2005, Preeti was part of the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, directed by Zana Briski. The child cast of nine had cheered so loud that it still rings in her ears. And she still remembers the warmth of the hug Zana gave her as the award was announced.
“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 recalls.
In 2002, when not yet into her teens, Briski and Ross Kauffman chose her in the cast of nine to teach them photography and get a close-up view of their world and that of their mothers. The film was completed in 2004 and went on to win about 20 international awards, capped by the Oscar.
When the film was nominated, the directors flew the kids to Los Angeles. Life was happy for some time and the directors tried their best to rehabilitate the kids. Preeti, who was in high school, 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.”
Abhijit, one of the kids in the film, now studies in New York University. Another girl goes to school there. Preeti is in touch with both of them. Two others are studying at Future Hope, run by a charitable trust. One has got married while another girl, who was with an internationally funded NGO, has disappeared.
Dressed in jeans and a trendy shirt, Preeti could pass for any other collegegoer, until the whiff of smoke and alcohol in her breath hits you. And you look at her eyes — beautiful, aggressive and defiant.
“At this age, I have a flat in Salt Lake, a laptop, costly phones and plenty of money. What do I lack?” she looks you square in the eye. “Zana aunty and I are in touch by email. 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 hired rooms in Prem Kamal, one of the most expensive Sonagachhi buildings.
Mother Rakhi lives in the opposite building. Preeti pays for her living expenses. 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 says, 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 racket while a minor, sent to a juvenile home from where she was handed to her mother by the state child welfare committee.
Police say she’s now part of a major sex racket that involves extremely powerful people, who will never let her escape into a sunnier world. Behind the I-care-a-damn stare, you can see a fleeting longing in her eyes — a longing for freedom.