Starkiss: Circus Girls Of India

  • 2003
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

The childhood fantasy of leaving home to join the circus is unmasked as a nightmare for impoverished young South-Asian girls in Dutch documentary filmmakers Chris Relleke and Jascha de Wilde's chilling expose. Founded in 1924, the Great Rayman Circus is among India's biggest and best-known traveling circuses, employing close to 300 trainers, maintenance...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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The childhood fantasy of leaving home to join the circus is unmasked as a nightmare for impoverished young South-Asian girls in Dutch documentary filmmakers Chris Relleke and Jascha de Wilde's chilling expose. Founded in 1924, the Great Rayman Circus is among India's biggest and best-known traveling circuses, employing close to 300 trainers, maintenance workers and performers. Shockingly, nearly 50 of the troupe's artists are underage girls (some as young as six), many from desperately poor, predominantly Nepalese families who sold their daughters for a pittance. The arrangement is simple, explains Rayman's proprietors, Madan Gopal and his son, Mithiw: Poor families are visited by "agents" who promise money in exchange for their young daughters. Smuggled into India, the lucky girls are actually hired by the circus. Many of those turned away will make their way to cities like Bengal and starve or become prostitutes. Once part of the circus, the chosen girls are isolated from the outside world by a metal enclosure, forbidden to speak to anyone other than their trainers and taught to perform dangerous stunts — the only education many will ever receive — including the cruel and painful "starkiss," in which the skimpily dressed girls bite down on a canvas bit and are hoisted high above the ring. Swinging their bodies to gain momentum, the girls twirl above the heads of delighted spectators, supported only by their teeth. New girls aren't paid during their first year; they must work off their expenses like indentured servants. Those whose parents ask for and advance against their daughters' future salaries work for years just to pay off the debt, making them no better than bonded slaves. Several girls appear on camera and speak honestly about their lives — some even sound grateful to be protected from the terrible conditions outside of the big top — and the film spends quite a bit of time with Johnson, a diminutive, 30-year-old "joker" who hides his own agony behind a grotesque greasepaint smile. Relleke and de Wild document horrifying human rights abuses with a minimum of sensationalism and an eerie poetry that makes for an unforgettable visual experience, from the opening trawl through the sleeping circus grounds to the film's final, melancholy image. As the circus sets up camp in yet another town, a young girl slowly disappears behind corrugated walls of tin, "protected" once again from the world outside. (In English, Hindi and Nepalese, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: The childhood fantasy of leaving home to join the circus is unmasked as a nightmare for impoverished young South-Asian girls in Dutch documentary filmmakers Chris Relleke and Jascha de Wilde's chilling expose. Founded in 1924, the Great Rayman Circus is am… (more)

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