Pankaj Johar’s documentary, Cecilia, screens on Friday evening at the Mumbai Film Festival. The movie paints the horrific picture of child trafficking in the country’s capital, and Johar tells us the story of Cecilia, a maid in his home in New Delhi, and her traumatic experience after losing her 14-year-old daughter, Mati. She was, like many girls and boys, lured from the countryside by a criminal gang. It promised her good money and a good life, and sold to a seedy agency - which, in turn, placed her with a rich family in New Delhi. A couple of months later, Mati, unable to bear the separation from her family of a father, mother and three siblings, committed suicide.
Johar and his lawyer wife, Sunaina, stumbled upon Mati’s tragic story after they had hired Cecilia, also from a placement agency in New Delhi. Cecilia became a part of the Johar family, and would even accompany the newly married couple on holidays. Everything seemed hunky dory till the news of Mati’s death came through the telephone. Though Cecilia was in the same city as Mati, the mother and daughter never met. In fact, Cecilia did not even know that her daughter had left their village.
A very personal account, the documentary talks about the evils of child trafficking and how young children are taken away from their home and familiar surroundings to distant cities, where they become domestic slaves. Of course, child traffickers pay money to the families of the young boys and girls with an assurance that they would have a better life. Which they may not. Admittedly, the boys and girls are not always sexually abused, but are invariably made to do backbreaking work for measly salaries.
Johar’s work tells us how Cecilia, a Santhal from a tribal belt in West Bengal, tries with the help of Pankaj and Sunaina to bring to book the child traffickers. But half way through, her husband’s reluctance, and pressure from her village force her to abandon her battle. She returns home and falls prey to alcoholism.
In an email interview, Johar has fascinating things to tell us.
What is your background?
I have studied finance and was working as a consultant before I decided to shock my parents and take the plunge at the age of 24. I worked as a news producer for six years with different news channels and then quit to form a film production company with my close friend Hemant Gaba, who too quit his job as a software developer in New York. Our first project, which we would like to describe as our film school, was an independent feature called Shuttlecock Boys. We shot it on Super 16 and everything that could go wrong went wrong with it. Time delays, budget issues and, worse, our negatives were destroyed. It was very raw and edgy.
Have you made other documentaries?
I have made a 48-minute documentary on my father before Cecilia, but this is my first full-length documentary. My father was shot in the spine when I was six, and this resulted in him losing all his sensation below his neck. He used a wheelchair for a while, but then became depressed and suicidal and stopped using it. Five years later, he decided to give life a chance, and now for the past 25 years, he has been helping people with disabilities. He has only left his room a dozen times in the past three decades, but has raised money to make a rehabilitation centre in Delhi.
Do you see documentaries as stepping stones to fiction features?
I know documentaries are given step-brotherly treatment in our country. There is not a single organisation in India that you can approach to fund your documentary. There are two very small government bodies, but they offer peanuts and take away all the rights. So, yes, many directors see theatre and documentaries as some sort of stepping stone to narrative features. But narrative cinema and documentaries require completely different set of skills. Not everyone can be Werner Herzog and be a master of both the mediums. I think documentaries are the best tool to bring immediate attention to important social issues. The general impression here is that documentaries are boring. But during the year that I have been travelling with my movie, I have seen documentaries that are as engaging and thought provoking as any good narrative film.
What prompted you to take up the case of Cecilia?
I think what we did was not very different from what anyone else with even a slightest of humanity would have done. I never, of course, thought that I would make a movie out of this. It was only when we saw the huge struggle that Cecilia was being forced to go through by the authorities that I decided to document everything.
But the police in your documentary seem all nice? Was it because your wife, Sunaina, is a lawyer?
Yes, Sunaina is a lawyer, but she does not go to court to fight cases. She works with a multinational consultancy group as part of their legal team. Just like there are all kinds of people in the world, there are bad policemen and there are good policemen. The cops we encountered in the beginning when Cecilia wanted to lodge a police case after her daughter had died were totally rotten. They had already shown the 14-year-old girl as an 18-year-old, so that the strict laws of trafficking a minor would not apply. They kept urging Cecilia to take money and not to file the case. On the other hand, the police commissioner under whose jurisdiction Cecilia’s village fell was very understanding, since he knew how serious a problem this was in the area. On the whole, I found that senior police officers were very sensitive about the issue, but those lower down the line were totally ignorant.
Do you plan to follow up on child trafficking?
We have an elaborate outreach campaign planned around the documentary, and are planning several community screenings and workshops in tribal areas as well as in educational institutes and universities to create awareness about the issue. I am also making a short documentary for the Films Division on the child rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi.
Sad that Cecilia had to lose the battle and die.
It indeed is. But that is the sad reality in our country. Victims of trafficking hardly ever get justice. The legal battles are so long that sometimes victims become hostile. Sometimes, they find it better to withdraw the cases and seek monetary compensation through out-of-court settlements. Traffickers hardly ever face jail term. And even when they do, it is easy for them to tweak the system and walk out.
After the Mumbai Film Festival, what next?
Immediately after this I am flying to Georgia for the premier there. Later in November we are going to Iran, Calgary, Finland and Germany.