When I first saw the trailer of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, I marvelled at how an issue like open defecation could become the subject of a Bollywood romance.
The Hindi film industry has always tried to play an important role on matters of social reform and change. If I grew up on a routine dose of films like Bimal Roy’s Sujata, which adroitly took on the issue of casteism, I also came to appreciate V Shantaram’s works like Do Aankhen Baarah Haath – a cinematic bid at ensuring jail reforms. Through stories, song-and-dance sequences and lilting melodies, these films gently nudged us to bring in change.
Who can forget Raj Kapoor’s socially relevant films of the 1950s, often written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and VP Sathe? That was then...
When I recently watched the trailer of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a remake of hit Tamil comedy Kalyana Samayal Saadham, I couldn’t help but smile at how wonderfully it had tackled a serious issue such as erectile dysfunction. A couple of years ago, Vicky Donor bravely dealt with sperm donation while having us in splits at the same time.
Even though social customs such caste, sati and window remarriage were passionately debated in the past, nobody wanted to talk about sex, personal hygiene and even health concerns. Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore.
These were pretty much my sentiments when I saw the first trailer of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Its lead actor, Akshay Kumar, deserves a pat on the back for bringing a social taboo out in the open and forcing people to think. To be fair, he has been doing this for a while now – he even approaches patriotism through the prism of self-reflection and change rather than enemy-bashing.
Watching that scene from the trailer where a woman beckons Bhumi Pednekar to join the ‘lota party’ who are waiting for her ‘belcome’ (welcome) brought back memories of the stories I heard growing up. One of them was about my mother, of course.
It was the late 1960s. My mom had been married for four years. A wedding at my paternal aunt’s ancestral village forced everybody to relocate there for a while.
My uncle was a prosperous zamindar. His house was a large and spacious one, quite unlike my grandfather’s cloistered place in Sambalpur – my ancestral hometown in Odisha. As it was their first function, everybody was in attendance.
My uncle, of course, played the perfect host without bothering to note that his home did not have toilets. No household in the village – rich or poor – had one, and even the residents’ century-old association with the British did not succeed in changing that. In fact, having a toilet in the home was thought to be polluting. You had to go the fields to perform this “unclean” act.
Matters of privacy were the least of their concerns. The fact that it could be particularly problematic for women never really crossed their minds. It didn’t matter that not everybody feels the urge to defecate in the morning. An accidental snake or insect bite? You must be kidding!
My mother was married into a family of humble means, but her own family was better off. My maternal grandfather’s home had an Indian-style toilet since the time it was built back in early 1950s. Growing up, mom never faced such issues. But married life threw up a whole new challenge.
Back in the village, a day before the wedding, mom was jolted out of sleep by my aunt to join her in the fields. She was mortified to know the reason, but found herself unable to refuse. So, out they went into the darkness with a lantern and a ‘lota’. The fields were empty with not a soul in sight, and the stillness of the dark morning seemed to ensure some privacy. Cold comfort – mom refused to join in, choosing to stand at a distance. My aunt, however, was not encumbered by any such qualm. She was used to the routine, having been married into this milieu at the tender age of 14.
Those two days were the most miserable in my mom’s life; she ate little and drank next to nothing. It was only when she returned home, back to familiar surroundings, that she finally started breathing easy.
A maternal aunt of mine also faced a similar situation. Married off at the age of fifteen in the mid 1950s, she was packed off to the family’s ancestral village. My uncle, an irrigation engineer, was posted in far-flung places where family accommodation was not allowed. Stuck in a new place all by herself, she was clearly uncomfortable in her surroundings.
But while other matters could eventually be tackled in the long run, what she simply couldn’t adjust to was the custom of open defecation – a norm in the village. Distraught, she cried her heart out during her next visit to her parents’ place. Worried for his daughter’s well-being, my grandfather had a word with her in-laws – after which she stayed in their Cuttack home (which had all the necessary arrangements). In time, a toilet was constructed at their village home.
Years later, while doing a story on Dr Bindeshwar Pathak – founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement – I visited his office in Delhi. During a tour of the premises, he showed me a model of their ‘cheap and easy-to-install’ Indian toilet that consumed less water as well. Dr Pathak had come up with this solution while dealing with that scourge called manual scavenging, which – unfortunately – is still prevalent in India.
In the process, I realised that open defecation is still in practice because of an age-old habit. In fact, a recent survey by Quality Council of India (QCI) conducted in 4626 villages across India found only 62.54% households have access to toilets – the number in Bihar was 30% while Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand followed at 37%. The situation in parts of urban India is no different where open defecation is still seen where people don’t have access to a toilet.
It’s time the call against it became a mass movement. Films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha should be a move in the right direction.