A few weeks after Cecilia Hasda came to work at the household of filmmaker Pankaj Johar and his family in Delhi in 2014, she heard that her 14-year-old daughter Mati, whom she had left in her village in Lakhimpur district in Assam, was in hospital. The news got worse: Mati was actually in the capital, not too far from Hasda – in a morgue. The teenager had been trafficked to Delhi without Hasda’s knowledge to work with a family and had died in mysterious circumstances.

Hasda wanted to file a police complaint but immediately came under pressure to avoid this step from her husband, members of her village, the agent who brought her daughter to Delhi, and the family that employed the teenager. She was offered monetary compensation and bluntly advised to move on.

Cecilia Hasda refused, and the documentary named after her follows the doughty domestic worker’s attempts to seek justice for her daughter’s death. Pankaj Johar, who has directed the documentary Still Standing (2010) and produced Hemant Gaba’s first feature Shuttlecock Boys (2011), turned on the camera soon after Hasda heard of her daughter’s death, and he filmed all the way till the case got resolved, first through the regular route (rounds of police stations and negotiations with the lawyer for Mati’s employer) and then the community way.

'Cecilia' director Pankaj Johar
'Cecilia' director Pankaj Johar

Cecilia provides a sincere and absorbing bottom-up study of human trafficking and its sometimes brutal side. The 81-minute film was premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in mid-November.

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Johar didn’t initially believe that Hasda’s problems would last beyond a few days. “I never thought that she would face such huge problems, and that she would be hassled by the police,” the 35-year-old filmmaker said. “We thought it would get sorted quickly and the trafficker would get punished.”

Johar’s involvement became serious after he met child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, who suggested that the only way to understand the gravity of human trafficking was to travel to the places most prone to such crime. Johar visits Hasda’s village, where the reasons behind the trafficking of under-age girls who are passed off as adults become amply clear. Agents exploit poverty and ignorance, and keep their so-called clients on a tight leash. “Many of the girls and women come from places in Bengal, Assam and Jharkhand,” said Johar. “Placement agencies ensure that you cannot keep the maids for over a year or so, since if they stay with a family for too long, the agency loses its commission. Under-age maids are not given salaries, these go directly to the agencies.”

Cecilia unfolds as Mati’s mother and the filmmaker experienced it. We see Hasda’s repeated visits to the police and the pressures she faces from her husband and other villagers through the filmmaker’s shocked eyes. The transactional nature of the whole business shows up in the attitude of the police and the lawyers, and suggests that for them, Mati is just another statistic – she can never be brought back, but perhaps her family can make some money out of her. What does justice mean for you, a police officer asks Hasda, a jail term for the trafficker, or money in the bank?

As Johar digs deeper, he is confronted with the wilful ignorance of the middle and affluent sections of society who don’t care where their help comes from, and whether or not they are old enough to work. “Wasn’t it people like me who were creating a demand that had opened a large market for these traffickers?” he asks in the film.

Yet, Johar sank in deeper than he might have wanted to. His wife Sunaina, whom he had married the year of Mati’s death, gets deeply upset with the phone calls and visits that Johar’s ailing father has to fend off while the filmmaker travels through Lakhimpur. Most employers hesitate to get involved with the personal matters of their live-in domestic workers, and Cecilia seems to justify the reluctance.

“We have had more conflicts than shown in the film, we faced more threats,” Johar said. “It was a turbulent time for Sunaina and me. When this incident happened, I was finalising my feature film screenplay, but I stopped doing everything else. There were monetary problems too.”

Johar soldiered on, and he is not sure if he would have if there wasn’t the promise of a film at the end of the tunnel. “Sunaina asked if I was doing the film for my own interests,” he said. “When we started helping her, I didn’t know what I was going to make. But I don’t know the answer to whether we would have continued to stay involved with her case if were weren’t making the film.”

The film includes observation as well as intervention, but Johar draws the line on trying to influence Hasda’s final decision on whether or not she should drop the case.

“Sometimes there was a fine line which I tried my best not to cross,” Johar said about his position as a sympathetic observer. “You want things to unfold in a certain way, and since I was the central character and was deeply involved, there were times when I could have influenced Cecilia’s decision, but it would not have been right on my part. I would have influenced the film and become an activist filmmaker.”