It seems like an unlikely premise – a man attempts to win back his wife after she refuses to live in a house without a toilet – but it’s also the basis of “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha” (“Toilet: A Love Story”), a new Bollywood film that opened in India today. While western audiences might find the premise amusing or outlandish, a lack of indoor plumbing is a serious problem posing significant public health and safety risks in India and the film, based on a true story, is helping to raise awareness.
In 2012, the BBC reported that while 63 percent of homes in India had a phone, less than half – 46.9 percent – had an indoor toilet. The remaining numbers either used the bathroom outside or used public restrooms.Besides the risks to public health posed by disease, women who are forced to use the bathroom outside are at risk for sexual assault. “While we were doing our research we heard of three incidents of molestation,” screenwriter Garima Wahal told Yahoo. “Crimes against women have increased owing to their vulnerability when they are out in the fields, alone in the dark, with their ‘pants down’ as it were.”
— bhumi pednekar (@psbhumi) July 22, 2017
In an interview with India Today, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, who stars in the film, said that making the movie was a wake up call. “When I read about it I was really shocked, 54% of Indians didn’t have toilets. Some people cannot afford it and some people didn’t want to build a toilet in their house,” he told interviewers. Kumar has aimed to bring additional attention to the problem with a new song – “Toilet Anthem” – which sheds light on some of the statistics surrounding the issue.
Yahoo also reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made indoor plumbing for all a priority. As part of his ongoing campaign to modernize India, Modi has had some 20 million toilets built since taking office in 2014, a fact the filmmakers acknowledged in the press. A statement from the film’s P.R. firm, Sterling Media, said “Toilet: A Love Story draws its premise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (or “Clean India Campaign”) initiative to improve sanitation across India and the very real problem of open defecation.”
So far the film has received generally positive reviews praising its handling of the delicate subject matter.
What’s most significant about #ToiletEkPremKatha is the fact that it boldly n progressively questions certain age old customs n practices
— Faridoon Shahryar (@iFaridoon) August 11, 2017
#ToiletEkPremKatha mirrors a reality, shuns superstition, hits where it hurts through brilliant dialogue. Deft direction and skilful writing
— taran adarsh (@taran_adarsh) August 11, 2017
#ToiletEkPremKatha | The film touches upon an important issue & delivers a strong message, with the right mix of entertainment.
— Priya Adivarekar (@priyaadivarekar) August 11, 2017
— bhumi pednekar (@psbhumi) August 11, 2017
While the lack of indoor plumbing continues to be a widespread, Kumar notes that there has been some improvement. “It is a huge problem,” he told India Today. “But I must congratulate the government, as a year back, when I was reading the script, it was 54% and today, it is 34%. I hope that in two years, our country becomes open defecation free.”