A Delhi-based newly married couple begin their time together. Pankaj is a filmmaker, Sunaina is a lawyer. And they have Cecilia with them, their loyal live-in maid and caretaker, virtually a part of this small family. But there seems to be no such thing as a ‘honeymoon period.’ Soon, they find themselves embroiled in one of countless faceless battles for justice, in a country deaf to the contrasts and horrors of child trafficking.
Cecilia wants to know what happened to her daughter, who was found dead at an employer’s household elsewhere in the city. Pankaj decides to film this frustrating journey, starting from the comfort of the warm confines of their flat to the brutal cold reality of threatening phone calls, ignorant cops and the frightened faces of Cecilia’s faraway village. The result — a moving, uncomplicated and stark documentary about one hapless mother in pursuit of an answer nobody wants to provide.
Cecilia plays as part of the India Story section of this year’s Mumbai Film Festival. We chat with its maker, Pankaj Johar, about those two unforgettable years, the complexities of shooting real people in unsavoury circumstances, and its aftermath:
For many, domestic helps and maids become unofficial parts of families. However, how much does a certain city’s house culture (like, say, Delhi tend to have full-time live-in maids far more than other cities) contribute to this bond?
P: Frankly, I don’t really think it has anything to do with the city’s house culture. You may have a very strong bond with a part-time maid and conversely your full-time maid could be a stranger to you even after years. But normally, sharing the same roof with someone as compared to having someone in your house for only a few hours would lead to stronger ties. I have never really myself been able to fully understand though that why is it that Delhi leads the number of families who have full-time live-in maids. It’s not that other metropolitan cities don’t have joint families or that they don’t need someone to take care of the daily chores. But just like a “bai” is a quintessential part of Mumbai, a full-time maid has become the norm in Delhi. At the same time, I am afraid not many still think domestic helps to be a part of the family. There are regular cases of assault and abuse that these helps receive at the hands of families. We are still steeped in the mindset where our helps cannot sit on the couch, they have different utensils and in a lot of cases even different washrooms. Isn’t that racism of sorts right inside our homes?
How much did your journalistic background influence your investigative ways? For instance, I’d have stopped after hitting a bureaucratic wall, but you even somehow urged your wife to keep going, and got heavily involved.
I think even if I was not making this film, we would have tried to go as far as we could to help Cecilia. Obviously, I would not have been recording the telephone calls and using the hidden camera during our meetings with the accused family’s lawyer or the police. My inquisitive ways are definitely thanks to my journalistic background. But won’t we all like to help someone if it is within our means to help that person? Also you have to understand that it was only when we first hand encountered the apathy of the whole system that I decided to document Cecilia’s struggle to get justice for her daughter.
Probably later on, I did do a few things selfishly for the film. For instance, I knew that if I stopped after being threatened by the traffickers, I would have no film. Also, initially I had thought that I will have to keep filming for 3-5 years considering how painfully slow our judicial process is. It was a pity, that Cecilia ended up losing to the system.
An interesting part was your young marriage in the background — Cecilia’s turmoil happened in the first year itself. On one hand there’s the trust aspect of how far you’d like to go for Cecilia, and on the other, there’s this notion that perhaps relationships reluctantly grow stronger through torrid times…
I think given an option, I would not put that kind of a strain on our relationship again. My wife still complains that I put both our lives at risk for the sake of the film. But most of the times, both of us were on the same page. I was away on a shoot when Cecilia first got a call that her daughter had been found dead in a house in Faridabad, and it was my wife who was with her at the police station for the next two days. She was constantly updating me on phone about the situation. And she is a lawyer, she understands the system. But even then the police were making the case so complicated that she needed the help of an NGO to register an FIR. It was a conscious decision to keep the marriage in the film. In fact, it is a parallel storyline. And the reason for that is that apart from Cecilia’s journey, it was our journey as well. 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 memories.
Was it a conscious choice to keep your bed-ridden father (on whom your last film Still Standing was about) largely out of the film?
Yes. In fact, now when I look at the film I think I could have kept him completely out. Because as a viewer you tend to ask yourself, what happened to this man? Why is he on bed? What went wrong? That takes away the main focus of the film. The only reason why he is there for whatever little time on the screen is because Cecilia was very fond of him. I think she was more attached to him than she was to us.
On many levels, this is an intensely personal film. How difficult was it to fight the urge of putting down the camera and respect the intimacy of some sensitive phases? Did she understand what you were trying to do?
Cecilia was very fond of the camera when we first met her. She loved being photographed. Of course, after the loss of her daughter, she became wary. No one would want to have her privacy infringed during those trying and difficult times. During those painful moments, the last thing you would want is to have a camera around you. But when I made her understand the reason, she became comfortable. She herself wanted the hardships of trafficking victims to be documented. In fact the camera became another person that was just there with us constantly. I anyway think that you have to be brutal as a documentary filmmaker. You need to have the courage to keep the camera rolling even when your characters are emotionally low and weak and going through traumatic and tumultuous times. You may feel that it’s not the right thing to do at that particular time. But you have to look at the broader picture. In my case, I also had to make sure to keep the crew at a minimal. Cecilia definitely would have been very uncomfortable if there was another person handling the camera. So though I would have loved to have the luxury of a DoP, I had to handle the camera myself. That was slightly bad for the production. Our location sound was a mess. But our brilliant sound designer, Susmit Nath (who also did the sound for Chauthi Koot) and sound consultant Niraj Gera saved the day for us in post production.
Since you knew you were making this into a film, did this affect the way you personally reacted (or didn’t react) to any situation?
I do not think so. I think I just end up choosing topics that have a personal resonance from my own life. The two documentaries that I am currently working on have become very personal, though they never started that way. The two screenplays that I have written (and am still as clueless as ever when will I be able to go on the floor with them) are also kind of autobiographical in a lot of ways.
Your next, if I’m not mistaken, is a documentary on Nobel Peace prize winner and child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, who also appears in this film as a guiding light of sorts. I presume some of it will overlap during your time with him for this case?
That is a small film that I am doing for Films Division. It is more of a biopic and I really am not too sure how much creative liberty I will have. They have already conveyed a general theme that I have to stick to. Since it is a commissioned film, I will not really be using any of the footage that I already have. It will be more about the after effects of his Nobel here in india.
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.
Approximately how much footage did you end up shooting over the year? Was it not inconvenient to keep a camera rolling at the risk of perhaps compromising your efforts to make sense of the system? People after all do tend to react differently when they see a camera here…
Contrary to what I was expecting, I shot around 100 hours of footage which was almost half of what I had in mind. One reason was that we finished the production earlier than we had thought. But another reason was that I never wanted to juggle with too much of footage on the edit table. The general tendency with documentaries is too keep shooting when you have a digital camera. But that also means that you have to spend that much more time with the footage during edit. 100 hours is by no means less footage. It’s huge in fact. But in a film like this, you just don’t know when to stop because there is a risk of losing out on something important. 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.
I was using the Canon Mark III. The DSLRs may have a hundred drawbacks but the biggest plus is the size. At the end of the day it is a still camera and that is the impression it gives to a lay man. Video cameras are conventionally thought to be big. So in a lot of cases I managed to pass off as an amateur photographer also.
What have the reactions been like in festivals so far?
It’s really been fantastic. There have been really long and interesting Q & A sessions. Mostly the Western audiences just find it hard to believe 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. But two really sweet moments stand out for me. One was after the world premiere at IDFA in Amsterdam, where one of the viewers somehow tracked my email and sent me a beautiful note on how the film had stayed with her after a week and how she could not stop thinking about Cecilia. Another email was from a guy in the UK who said that this was one of the most heart-breaking tale he had seen.
Any message you’d like to give viewers before or after they watch your film at MAMI?
India is not much of a documentary watching country and the subject is pretty heavy. So I am really curious as well as excited on the audience response at MAMI. I think we all take back different meanings from the films that we see. So I would leave that to the audience. What’s important for me is the outreach campaign that we are designing around the film as we want to create awareness about the issue. We start that right after MAMI. We will be holding community screenings and workshops in tribal areas, universities, RWA’s, corporates etc. to create more awareness on the issue. It requires a decent financial commitment, and we just received a small grant from Britdoc to make that possible for the first six months at least.
Cecilia show timings at MAMI MFF 2016:
5 PM, October 21st, PVR Phoenix
5.30 PM, October 22nd, PVR Andheri