There's a big-budget movie designed to stop people defecating in public
Some of the best movies of all time are those with an important lesson. If the story is told well enough, these messages resonate deeply. When I think about my favourite flicks, the top three all have some moral. It's a Wonderful Life teaches us to be happy with what we have and remember how precious life is. The Shawshank Redemption teaches us the importance of never giving up hope, even when we're trapped in a bleak and uncompromising situation. And Big Momma's House teaches us that sometimes the only way a law enforcement official can solve a homicide is by donning a fat suit and engaging in casual transvestism.
However, in a movie entitled Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, the moral is even more unusual. Directed by Shree Narayan Singh, it stars famed Bollywood actors Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar and tells the story of a man named Keshav, who owns a bicycle repair shop in the secluded village of Mandgaon. When he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Jaya, he eventually marries her and the two live together. However, college graduate Jaya finds herself repulsed by the total lack of regard for personal or communal hygiene displayed by the locals and by the fact that women have to walk away from their homes whereas men can defecate pretty much wherever they want.
The stubborn Jaya, who apparently grew up taking plumbing for granted, refuses to void her bladder openly, according to parochial custom. However, conflict arises when Keshav’s traditionalist dad refuses to build an indoor toilet. Keshav is forced to choose between conforming to his family's values and saving his marriage. See: it's really just like Meet The Parents, but with more of a focus on the merits of porcelain cisterns. The screenplay was allegedly based on the true story of Priyanka Bharti, a 19-year-old newlywed who ran away from her husband in 2012 when she moved in with him and discovered that his house did not feature a water closet. To be fair, I think I would have done likewise.
The movie's premise may sound ridiculous, but it does actually highlight a serious issue with sanitation in the more remote hinterlands of India. According to a report conducted by Unicef, approximately half of India’s population, some 564 million people, do not have access to indoor plumbing/flushing toilets and are forced to defecate out in the open. Due to these unhygienic conditions, more than 600,000 Indians will die as a result of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid and worm infections. In response to this public health crisis, the Indian government has pledged $29 billion to build millions of toilets across the country.
But many Indians are resistant to the idea of building toilets in the home and see it as an intrusion upon their cultural values. However, it's vulnerable women who suffer most as a result of this squeamishness about indoor plumbing. They are often forced to defecate outdoors in the dead of night or the very early morning, or hold in bowel movements for hours in the name of decorum, which often leads to further health problems. In addition to this, many are abused or raped while venturing out to relieve themselves, preyed upon by wild animals or stung by toxic insects.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi highlighted the issue in his first independence day speech to the nation, in which he stated: "We are in the 21st century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall. Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?"
The film has been fairly well-received by critics. Writing for the Times of India, movie critic Meena Lyer opined that: "TEPK is a robust love-story striking a balance between entertaining and educating. Writer-duo Siddharth-Garima take us through this eye-opening journey of how we need to build toilets for our women ... So whether you have pressing matters to attend to or not, please take a detour to this toilet. Each of us needs to raise a stink about what our countrymen do in the open."
In a review for The Wire India, critic Tanul Thakur stated: "It’s refreshing to see a mainstream Hindi film, revolving around a star, that isn’t centred on people vs state, but people vs people. It is ready to call out the hypocrisies of religion ... The film is ready to show us the mirror and essentially say this, “It’s high time we change the way we live.”
Even Bill Gates has chimed in on the movie, and on December 19 the Microsoft founder tweeted: "There’s no denying that 2017 was a really tough year... but it also delivered some amazing moments of hope and progress. Here are some inspiring tweets that you may have missed," before tweeting "'Toilet: A Love Story,' a Bollywood romance about a newlywed couple, educated audiences about India’s sanitation challenge."
In the West, this film is probably going to remain a cult curio for stating the obvious. However, it's clear that attitudes need to change in India when it comes to sanitation and sewage, and hopefully, this film will go some way towards convincing people to embrace flushing lavatories.