Akshay Kumar's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is an important film to make Bharat swacch
The first time I was introduced to the concept of a ‘lota party’, I was 14 and visiting my ancestral village in western Bihar. Most homes in the village did not have toilets, which meant that women woke up an hour before sunrise. In a single file, they walked to the fields behind the village to defecate in the open. Under the cover of darkness, they’d lift up their sarees and pull down the ghoonghat until it completely covered their faces.
In a race against the sun, these women rush to the canal to bathe and wash before the men of the village wake up at 6 am. For the rest of the day, they would hold on to their bladders.
Most of us in cities don’t understand how dire the situation is for women in our villages. And, this is why the Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Padnekar film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is an important film. Keshav (Akshay) and Jaya (Bhumi)’s marriage hits a speed breaker as soon as she discovers that her new home doesn’t have a toilet. She is expected to join the other women of the village in their ‘lota party’ at the crack of dawn and relieve herself in the fields.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Tapsee Pannu-Amitabh Bachchan Pink starrer brought the conversation about sexual violence and consent into the mainstream. This year Toilet: Ek Prem Katha explores another issue pertinent to women – access to a toilet – and challenges patriarchy in the process. According to a study by the United Nations, an estimated 600 million Indians still defecate in the open. The lack of proper sanitation contributes to diseases, child malnutrition, and violence against women.
In India, open defecation is not just a rural problem. The increasing number of urban slum dwellers has put a further strain on the already inadequate sanitation infrastructure in our cities. The issue is so critical it featured prominently in Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day address as Prime Minister.
“Brothers and Sisters, we are living in 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in open? Whether dignity of women is not our collective responsibility. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters,” he said. Modi also announced his intention to end open defecation in India by October 2, 2019— Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday.
The second half of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha does seem like a bloated Swachh Bharat PSA. But regardless of its flaws (the film is heavy handed, there’s brazen propaganda for the government and it’s 40 minutes too long), the film reflects a very crucial problem.
Like Pink demonstrated, films have the power to provoke conversations about taboo subjects. Director Shree Narayan Singh does shy away from addressing the beliefs about purity and untouchability that contribute to acceptance of open defecation but he does manage to get the film’s core message across. And, it’s peppered with enough romance and humour to keep the audience entertained.
On the surface, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha might be a film about sanitation but the story also has prominent feminist underpinnings.
Bhumi Padnekar's Jaya is a college topper who stands her ground even if it means the end of her marriage. When she is taunted about the women of the village about creating a mountain out of a molehill, she lectures them about safety, health and, most importantly, equality. When Keshav, her 12th-pass husband, is asked if his educated wife will work, he says 'if she wants'.
Considering the current political climate in the country, it is heartening to see Akshay taking on the ‘sabhyata’ and ‘sanskriti’ squad who ask ‘jis aangan mein tulsi lagate hai, wahaan shaucch karna shuru kar de?’
Only building toilets is not enough to tackle India’s sanitation crisis. People need to be educated on the need for better hygiene. Like Akshay says ‘problem shauch ki nahi, soch ki hai’.