Late-night heartwarmer
17 November 2005
The Dominion Post

It pays to keep an eye on what TV2 shoves on in its 11pm-ish graveyard, because besides some terrific comedies, there is the occasional good documentary.

Last night's Calcutta Hilton had the virtue of being short and to the point, and telling an extremely fine story. It was a little amateurish, but, somewhat perversely, it was a nice change to see this – the sort of heartwarmer that usually gets the glib 60 Minutes-type treatment – being told in a more prosaic way. For it was such a nice story, it would have been impossible to tell it badly.

The "Hilton" is not exactly a hotel, but the Calcutta home and business of a New Zealand family from Albany, Kerry and Annie Hilton, and their four children, who run a business that supports prostitutes who want to get off the streets. They moved to India six years ago, intending to help the poor, but quickly decided that simple charity work wouldn't even touch the sides.

In the Sonnagachi district where they live, prostitutes – many in their very early teens – literally line the streets. They work for the equivalent of 50 cents a trick. Some have been effectively kidnapped and sold into the business. Nobody wants these women in any level of Indian society, so they are trapped in a miserable and often deadly poverty cycle.

The Hiltons devised a business – sewing gift bags out of jute, of the sort you might buy to carry wine in – and employs prostitutes to do the work, paying them, and supporting them in their efforts to turn their lives around. The firm is profitable, and that helps to fund health and other treatment the women need. The family vow they're so happy in this work, they're never coming back to New Zealand.

The big gap in this account of the Hiltons was their motivation, and what sort of journey led them to make their extraordinary commitment. Obviously they must be extremely good people, but we could have done with more information: why Calcutta; what was their life like in New Zealand at the point they decided to leave; what friends and family made of their decision; was there a religious dimension?

Also, what do the authorities make of this operation? Is it monitored? Does the bureacracy try to help or hinder it? All that remains a bit of a mystery. Also, other, New Zealand-based businesses are involved in employing struggling people in third-world democracies. It would have been useful to get some estimate of this kind of activity.

But the programme did tell the story of some of the women extremely movingly. One, a Bangladeshi, had been offered a job in India as a maid many years ago, and had left home as a young girl, only to discover the "job" was prostitution. She had no money, knew no one, had no idea how to get help to contact her family – who could not have afforded to get her back, anyway.

She literally had no option, short of starving, but to comply. The programme traced her efforts in late middle age to visit her mother in Bangladesh, and joined them for the reunion.

In an even more affecting scene, another woman proudly showed the first thing she bought with her first-ever pay packet – a little doll. The programme brought home how innocent these women remain, despite the degredation and illness.

The programme was presented and narrated by Evie Ashton, who, while a natural TV performer, could not help but seem a little gauche as she compared her comfy urban world to the roil of Calcutta. But again, it was a nice change from the more worldly Cameron Bennett treatment we're used to. Slightly awkward and imperfect though this may have been, it was a better effort than much of the glib lifestyle fare we see on prime time.