Taken aback by his maid Cecelia’s struggles and the untimely death of her daughter, Delhi-based filmmaker Pankaj Johar decided to document her life post the tragic incident. The film which traces the story of trafficking of domestic maids, was recently premiered at the ongoing Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival.
Johar, who has previously won the best debut director for his documentary Still Standing which traces the story of a person with disability, worked as a television producer for eight years before co-founding a production company with his friend, Hemant Gaba. In a chat with Metrolife, the thirty-six-year-old reveals more about his film and the issue of human trafficking.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I realised very early in my job that corporate life was not for me. What gave me the biggest kick was watching a film in the cinema hall and being transported to another world for those two hours. Before Hemant and I formed our own film production company in 2008, and shot our first feature film Shuttlecock Boys, followed by our first documentary, I worked in various news channels as a news producer in Delhi.
Why did you make a film on Cecilia?
One thing about living in metropolitan cities is the availability of cheap household help. Whether it is a part time maid or a full-time live-in maid, it’s hard for us to imagine our lives without them. We develop a unique bond with them and they unofficially become a part of our extended family. And same was the case with Cecilia, who was our domestic help whom we hired after my wife and I moved in together post marriage. We were both working and wanted to have someone who could take care of the house. Tragically, Cecilia passed away early this year. She had taken to alcohol after going back to her village as she could not take the trauma of losing her young daughter.
What motivated you to make the film?
To hire a full-time live-in help for your house, you just need to go to a placement agency, pay a one-time commission and are provided a house-help for a year for a meagre salary. But like a lot of other people, I was absolutely ignorant about the background of these helps. For instance, no agency will tell you that most of these young girls and boys have been trafficked from India’s tribal belts. These are regions so steeped in poverty that
the traffickers find it very easy to influence the gullible parents.
When Cecilia got a call that her daughter had been found dead in the capital, she thought this to be some kind of a prank as she had left her daughter studying in a school in (West) Bengal. Only much later did the situation become clear to us. Initially we just wanted to help Cecilia file the case and get justice. But when we saw that the police were only interested in making her take money and settling the case, I knew that I had to document all this. The whole lackadaisical attitude of everyone who should have acted was my biggest motivation to make the film.
What are the other narratives that you have explored in the film?
Primarily, the film is the story of Cecilia’s struggle of whether she gets justice in the end or not. But it is also the story of every poor tribal who is being sold glitzy city dreams and forced to sell their kid in the hope of a better life for them. The indifferent attitude of the law enforcing authorities is also something the film highlights. The other important parallel story is my own journey from being an educated yet ignorant middle class Indian to discovering dark things about our society. Kailash Satyarthi and his work is another layer that I have touched upon. To tell the truth, I always feared deep inside that Cecilia will lose against the system. But I was still hoping desperately that she could somehow see the trafficker behind bars. Considering how painfully slow the whole judicial system in India is, I thought I will be filming Cecilia for three-four years. It was sad to see her losing hope so soon.
How grave is the issue of human trafficking in India?
Lot of us think that trafficking in our country is mostly for sex trade. But there is so much more to it. So many girls are trafficked to be sold as brides, there is trafficking for agricultural and industrial purposes. Areas rich in natural resources have a lot of mines where most of the labour is kids. But I guess what gets pushed under the carpet a lot is trafficking for domestic slavery. A lot of us have live-in maids at home but are not aware that they come to us through a well organised mafia that is slowly overtaking any other form of trafficking in India just by the sheer numbers.
Tell us about the research process.
Our team scoured the web and read everything there was to read about trafficking. We met activists including Kailash Satyarthi, traffickers, trafficking victims as part of our research. It was a huge eye-opener. How many of us know that India is home to one-third of the world’s modern day slaves?
Did you face any challenges?
The biggest challenge was to shoot with Cecilia during the most trying times for her. She had just lost her daughter and the last thing anyone would want in such a situation is to have her privacy infringed during that painful period. But she understood the importance of having this film made. Another challenge was to make sure not to cross the line between filmmaking and activism. We were in a position to influence her decisions but that would have been wrong. We just told her the repercussions of her decisions.
Lastly, we had to ignore the numerous threats that we were receiving from the
traffickers warning us against going ahead with the case. It was tough because we just
had got married and we were concerned about our safety.