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Dance of sorrow

THE INSIDE STORY Cecilia with her elder daughter in a scene from the documentary  

While watching a documentary, you often start relating or feeling for the subject, but midway through Cecilia it becomes hard to divide empathy between the subject and the maker. The Pankaj Johar film, which was screened at the ongoing JIO MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival, captures the real story of Cecilia Hasda, his household maid, who, discovers one day that her daughter Mati whom she had left in her village in Lakhimpur district in Assam is in a morgue in Faridabad. The teenager had been trafficked without her knowledge and was working as a maid with a family in the city. The police describe it as suicide but Cecilia is not ready to accept.

Even before she files the FIR, Cecilia faces pressure from her village community, her husband and the trafficker to accept some compensation from the family where her daughter was employed, and move on. The maid, supported by Johar and his wife Sunaina, decides to fight on. But soon they discover that the system and the society have turned numb to such cases and that Mati is just another statistic in the number of girls that go missing every year from tribal areas of the country.

For Pankaj, a former journalist, who earlier made an inspiring documentary, Still Standing on his father Rajinder Johar, a quadriplegic philanthropist who runs an NGO, Family of Disabled, it was yet another case of a personal story turning into a social document. The events unfold during the first year of Pankaj’s marriage and leave a scar for a lifetime. Like many of us, at first, he thought it is an open and shut case for Mati was a minor but soon he and his lawyer wife discover that it is a dark, long and tiring tunnel. So when he sat on the editing table after almost two years of shooting in the dark interspersed with rays of light, he decides to give the film his voice and becomes the narrator.

He turns on the camera with the hope that he is recording events for proof and possibly a documentary but along the way as he and his mother receive threats from traffickers there are moments when he starts questioning his focus. At one point, even his wife, who supported him, breaks down. “There were moments when I felt I am getting selfish as a filmmaker but then I had to continue to get to the truth and perhaps the journalist in me pushed me to hold on,” says the Delhi-based filmmaker in a telephonic conversation.

When Cecilia’s husband is allegedly kidnapped and her other daughter faces threats, Pankaj faces yet another dilemma. Is he pushing her to fight the case? He tells her the pros and cons of accepting compensation and fighting the case but leaves the final decision to her. By doing so, Pankaj says, he kept the sanctity of the line between a filmmaker and an activist. The courageous Cecilia holds on for some time taking on relatives and her husband, but ultimately she gives up. It entails accepting her minor daughter as a major. It also means forgiving not only the family but also the trafficker. It is a painful process and Pankaj doesn’t allow the camera to come in between.

Along the way, he meets child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi and his son, who advise him to go to the tribal areas to understand the root cause of the problem. Pankaj says it is a matter of demand and supply. “We depend on maids and often don’t care to know where these girls are coming from. What is their age and why are they ready to work for such abysmally low wages?” The areas that he visits are poverty-stricken, where the seeds of government schemes are yet to be watered. In such a scenario, it is not difficult to understands why parents allow their kids to go to the cities with shady characters. They believe that it would not be worse until a Mati loses life.

Without underlining it, the film also captures the false sense of security that the city provides. Cecilia fought for as she had faith that the city would not fail her but when she finds that her confidence was misplaced, she returns to her village and says sorry to members of her community for pushing them into a police case. The scene where she seeks pardon in the village panchayat creates a lump in the throat. It is followed by a tirbal dance which Pankaj describes as dance of sorrow. He says it was difficult for him to film that but he didn’t want to intervene because it was Cecilia’s space and it was a choice that she had made. Does it complete a circle? Perhaps not. For Cecilia takes to alcohol and within a year of returning to village passes away.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2020 12:02:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Dance-of-sorrow/article16077839.ece

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