To get a camera into the teeming brothels of Bombay, William Cobban ignored statements from police and local officials telling him it was impossible. No one had done it before, and he was not destined to be the first, they said.
Not too far into his powerful documentary film "The Selling of Innocents" (airs on Cinemax Nov. 25, 11 p.m.-12 midnight), Mr. Cobban's camera does the impossible. The hallways of the crowded brothels are narrow and poorly lit. Men, women, and children mingle about, staring or turning away from the camera as it moves through a harrowing underworld.
Cobban, a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, directed the extraordinary film for Associated Producers in Canada, an independent production company. Their objective was to tell the story of the illegal flesh trade centered in the infamous brothels along the Falkland Road Kamatipura area of Bombay, and to highlight the efforts of several individuals fighting to end the trade and rescue the young women. Despite its subject, none of the scenes depict the objectionable aspects of the location.
"It is against the law in Bombay to operate a brothel," says Cobban, "or to be a prostitute under 18. But this has been going on practically forever as part of the culture, and so has the subjugation of women. In a country approaching close to a billion people, they have all kinds of problems, and brothels are not considered much of a problem."
Before filming began, Cobban spent five weeks researching and interviewing in Bombay and Nepal. The small country of Nepal is the main source of young women who become prostitutes in Bombay. Many are either kidnapped by procurers, or sold by their families under the pretense of traveling to the city for a good job. Once there they are usually beaten, starved, and forced to become prostitutes. Contracting AIDS is a constant threat. After 10 years or so they are abandoned.
"Men in Bombay find the young women from Nepal to be rather exotic," says Cobban, explaining the historical context of the problem, "and for many years young women from villages were supplied to the courts of nobility in Nepal, and this was the main source of income for the villages."
In the film, using a hidden camera, Cobban records the father of a 14-year-old Nepalese girl selling her for $50. Smiling and shy, the girl thinks she is going to Bombay for a legitimate job. (Cobban says the girl was rescued after filming and is now in a boarding school in Nepal.)
In Bombay, Ruchira Gupta, an investigative journalist with political contacts, helped Cobban gain access to the brothels. "It was very tense," he says. "Each night there was a whole new bunch of faces saying, 'Nobody told us you could be here.' We befriended anybody, thinking of all kinds of excuses to turn the camera on, and just fighting to stay there and talk to the women."
In the film, Cobban accompanies Vinod Gupta, an activist defying the police and madams, as he and his associates raid a brothel. A young girl has managed to smuggle a letter out begging to be rescued. While the police stand by, Mr. Gupta and his men break down doors and free the girls who have not set foot on the street in front of the brothel in four years.
"Vinod told me that if nobody is doing anything to save the girls, he will," says Cobban. "He has been beaten several times, and can't go into the area anymore."
A few girls who manage to escape are returned to Nepal and sheltered at Maiti Nepal, a home for girls founded by Anuradha Korirala in l992.
"She operates on a shoestring," says Cobban, "but has received a lot of publicity." Some nongovernmental agencies in Nepal are critical of Ms. Korirala, charging her with allowing the Western press to take photos of 10-year-old girls who have been raped.
"Part of the solution is relatively inexpensive," says Cobban, "and that is education such as the women-awareness rally seen at a Nepal village near the end of the film.
"Some little theater groups have gone to the villages and put on skits," he says. "They tell the girls, 'If you see a train, run,' because they are taken by train from Nepal to Bombay. Or, 'if you can't see the mountains, you've gone too far,' because if they are on the plain they are away from Nepal.
"The girls are duped and conned all the time."