It is a sight repeated tens of millions of times every morning across northern India: groups of women carrying water lota making their way to the fields before dawn to defecate. They need to do this before light, and ahead of the men.
The off-Bollywood movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha begins with women carrying lanterns and lota ducking behind bushes. But this morning there is a slight complication: an ‘eve-teaser’ passes by driving a tractor and the women are caught in the headlights. They freeze and hurriedly cover their faces with the pallu of their saris.
Toilet trained, Sonia Awale
Where to take a dump, Bhushan Tuladhar
Director Shree Narayan Singh plunges directly into the ugly reality of India where 300 million people still defecate in the open, an activity that is especially risky for women. He uses scatological humour to tackle a serious taboo.
Toilet tells the tale of 36-year-old Keshav Sharma who dreams of getting married but cannot unless he finds a girl with two thumbs in her left hand, as per the requirement of his priest father. He is also made to marry a black buffalo in an attempt to rid him of a fault in his horoscope.
But after a chance meeting outside a train toilet, Keshav immediately falls for Jaya Joshi, who eventually reciprocates his feelings. Keshav makes a fake thumb for Jaya to wear to get his father’s approval for marriage. But the very next morning after their wedding, Jaya, a graduate from a well-to-do educated family, is shocked to find that Keshav’s house does not have a loo.
Initially Keshav does not understand what is the big deal. Why doesn’t his new wife socialise with the other lota women at dawn? She refuses, so he tries to convince his orthodox father to make a latrine inside the house. Dad thinks that would be sacrilegious. Keshav then comes up with hilarious temporary solutions to stop Jaya from ultimately leaving him, but we won’t tell you what they are.
Toilet is not just about the lack of latrines. At a deeper level it deals with India’s entrenched patriarchy, the irrational orthodoxy of religious fundamentalists, bureaucratic disinterest and corruption. Which is all very familiar to us here in Nepal, albeit less pervasive.
The film was one of the highest grossing Hindi movies ever, but has already come and gone in Kathmandu theatres in 2018. Those who missed it can stream it online.
This movie will probably be more effective than thousands of editorials and public service announcements to stop open defecation. Toilet is edutainment cinema at its best, communicating a public health message while addressing the underlying social contradictions.
Veteran actor Anupam Kher as the self-confessed ‘dirty mind but clean hearted’ uncle of Jaya, and Divyendu Sharma playing Keshav’s bother add the much-needed comic relief in this at times preachy film. Sudhir Pandey as the father of Keshav deserves a special mention for his brilliant characterisation of a devout Hindu priest set in his ways. Relative newcomer Bhumi Pednekar has stage presence as the strong-willed Jaya. Akshya Kumar as Keshav is perfectly cast, if a little too old for the part.
Toilet does suffer from the typical Bollywood plot-holes: too many happenstance and ironically larger than life events for a movie inspired by a true story. But it is still a stark portrayal of a society where mobiles are more prized than toilets.