Johar’s mid-length documentary Still Standing, on his quadriplegic father won the best debut film at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2012 and got the Award of Excellence from the Indian Documentary Producer’s Association. He recently made a documentary film called Cecilia. The film is the story of struggle for justice of Cecilia Hasda, a tribal woman from West Bengal, whose daughter has been trafficked and is found dead in New Delhi.
Johar speaks to Guardian 20 about the film and about the mess of human trafficking in India.
Q. Why did you decide to make a film on your domestic help, Cecilia?
A. Cecilia was our domestic help whom we had hired after my wife and I got married and moved in together. We were both working and wanted to have someone who could take care of the house. We soon developed a unique bond and a very strong and affectionate relationship with her. She unofficially became a part of our extended family. One day, Cecilia got a call that her daughter has been found dead in Delhi. She thought this to be some kind of a prank as she had left her daughter studying in a school in Bengal. Only much later did the situation become clear to all of 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 money and settling the case, I knew that I had to document all this. The post-mortem had already happened. They had already shown the 14-year-old girl as an 18-year-old so that the strict laws of trafficking a minor won’t apply. The whole lackadaisical attitude of everyone was my biggest motivation to make the film.
Q. What was Cecilia’s reaction when you told her that you are making a film on her daughter’s death?
A. Well yes, Cecilia was very wary and confused when I initially told her that I wanted to make a film on her daughter’s death. She was going through a very tumultuous period in her life. The last thing she would have wanted was to have a camera in front of her recording her intensely personal moments. So I had to first make sure that she understood why I was doing all this — use this film to show other people how much injustice is being done in India. After that she became comfortable. She herself wanted the hardships of trafficking victims to be documented.
Q. As you had hired Cecilia from a placement agency, did you also do a background research on these placement agencies for your documentary?
A. One thing about living in metropolitan cities is the availability of cheap household help. In a city like Delhi it’s very easy 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 with 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 gullible parents. The traffickers pay the parents money and bring these kids to cities. Here, the traffickers sell the kids to placement agencies. In a lot of cases the traffickers run placement agencies themselves. From the placement agencies, these people reach our houses where again, as you know, they are paid really meagre salaries.
“There would be times when I knew I would be compromising on my efforts and then I chose not to film those particular events. At other times, when people would find the presence of camera awkward, I would just roll it and keep it on the table. There were even moments when I just used my phone’s audio and sometimes even the phone discreetly. Documentaries are made more or less on the edit table. You cannot script films like these and you do not know where your characters will end up by the time you decide to stop shooting. So I decided to shoot every minute detail.”
Q. In your film, Kailash Satyarthi is shown as guiding the audience about human trafficking. Why Satyarthi?
A. I first came across Kailash Satyarthi’s name while researching this film — I had not heard of him before. But my first meeting with him itself was a huge eye-opener for me. He has this calming and serene presence and after meeting him you feel that this messiah is going to make everything alright. But the problem of child slavery in our country is so massive that it will take decades before things start looking up. Kailash had not won the Nobel at that time, so not many in India knew him then. He, along with his son, extended some very valuable help to us. So did another activist, Rishi Kant. In fact, without his help we wouldn’t even have been able to lodge the FIR or go to Cecilia’s village with police protection.
I had envisaged Kailash to have a much broader role in Cecilia. But after the Nobel, he became extremely occupied and busy and was constantly travelling. For a year at least, I had a hard time getting through to him. So in the current film, he has a much less screen presence than what I had thought.
Q. Had such an incident never happened, would you have ever realised the ugly reality of placement agencies and their links with traffickers?
A. Definitely not. I think this film has been as much my journey as it is Cecilia’s. That is why it has such a personal narrative. Every new day brought us so many things that we did not know existed in our country. We were just another educated middle-class couple — so ignorant about the crucial issues of our country. I think throughout the film, I grew as a person. No matter where we are in our lives years later, those two years and the time that we spent with Cecilia will forever be etched in our memory.
Q. This is a very emotional film where each scene is minutely filmed, like Cecilia’s daughter Mati’s last rites being performed…
A. I had not even decided to make this film when I shot Mati’s ritual with my
iPhone. I just wanted to use that as evidence in case the need arises in the court case. In a film like this, you just don’t know when to stop because there is a risk of losing out on something important. So I decided that I have to capture every development in the case as well as every aspect of Cecilia’s journey. There would be times when I knew I would be compromising on my efforts and then I chose not to film those particular events. At other times, when people would find the presence of camera awkward, I would just roll it and keep it on the table. There were even moments when I just used my phone’s audio and sometimes even the phone discreetly. Documentaries are made more or less on the edit table. You cannot script films like these and you do not know where your characters will end up by the time you decide to stop shooting. So I decided to shoot every minute detail.
Q. How difficult was the making of the film, to get the residents of Cecilia’s village to talk about human trafficking?
A. During the making of this film, we travelled to Cecilia’s village twice. Because of the constant pressures and threats from the villagers asking Cecilia to drop the case and withdraw all the charges, she was very scared of travelling to the village alone. It was quite obvious that the villagers were doing this at the behest of the trafficker since he used to bring a lot of kids from that area to Delhi and other cities. So we first met the police commissioner of the district where Cecilia’s village lies. The villagers were definitely surprised to see us during the first visit. They did not confront Cecilia when they saw the police but they also did not really help us much with the investigation into her husband’s disappearance. Watching Cecilia say sorry to the villagers for having filed the case about her daughter’s trafficking and death was painful.
Q. How have the audiences responded to your film thus far?
A. The reactions at all the festivals have been fantastic. But outside India, audiences just find a lot that happens in the film unbelievable. They find it hard to digest that there can be such huge disparities between citizens of the same country. And it’s not financial at all. It’s about how every part of the system — from the police to the judiciary — treats you differently. How one part of India competes with the world’s finest, while the other still lacks the basic survival needs. MAMI [Mumbai Film Festival] has been good too, but I think people here do not understand the gravity of the problem since child labour is so ingrained in our psyche. We see it all around us and have become almost numb to it.
Q. We hear that Cecilia has now passed away after having struggled for years to get justice for her daughter…
A. I think that is a sad reality of our country and what has happened in Cecilia’s case is what happens in a majority such cases. 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 cases and take monetary compensation through out-of-court settlement. Traffickers hardly ever face any jail term. And even when they do, it’s easy for them to tweak the system and come out.