amanpour toilet a love story
Bollywood film spotlights open defecation in India
01:24 - Source: CNN

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More than 50% of Indians in rural areas still defecate in the open

Newly wed in movie outraged when her new home has no toilet

Mumbai, India CNN  — 

A movie that tackles the subject of open defecation may not sound like romantic entertainment, but audiences across India think the current Bollywood hit “Toilet: A Love Story” delivers just that.

At a time of slumping ticket sales and superstar flops, the story of Jaya, a newly married woman who leaves her husband because his home has no toilet, is flushed with success.

Jaya, who grew up with a toilet in her house, becomes outraged when she learns there is no toilet in her new marital home. Western audiences might be startled by more than just the basic plot: Shortly after marriage, Jaya is invited to join the village women in their nightly “lota party.”

The women go to a field at night to relieve themselves carrying their “lota” or water vessels to clean themselves afterwards. “Shed all your inhibitions and get down to business,” one woman urges an unwilling Jaya.

In a country where women defecating in the open face the possibility of rape, it’s no surprise to Indian audiences why women would group together for this activity.

The lead actor, Bollywood megastar Akshay Kumar, kicked off the film’s promotional tour by digging a pit toilet.

Not the stuff Bollywood dreams are usually made of, but it’s a fertile topic for Indians who are vividly aware of the problem of open defecation.

And it’s become highly political: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made “Clean India” a prominent government campaign. This includes a spree of nationwide toilet building, according to government tallies, roughly 45 million over 3 years.

Despite this effort, more than 50% of Indians in rural areas – nearly half a billion people – still defecate in the open.

And India’s cities aren’t spared; An estimated 7.5% in urban areas still relieve themselves in the open.

Promotional poster for "Toilet: A love story."

Not everyone’s cup of tea

Critics gave the movie mixed reviews, with many saying it reeks of propaganda for the Modi government. Audiences didn’t seem to care. And neither does the film’s director and editor, Shree Narayan Singh, “It addresses a problem of national magnitude and is a step in the right direction. I think the people’s verdict is proof enough.”

Social messages are classic fodder for Bollywood movies. Still, Singh says this movie was far from a sure bet. “”Toilet” was not everyone’s cup of tea. When I first told people that I was directing a film called “Toilet - Ek Prem Katha (A love story),” the initial reaction was always either an uncomfortable silence or a snigger.”

Movie critic Tanul Thakur, among those who termed “Toilet” propaganda, admits he was surprised by the film’s topic, “A film like that hasn’t really been made in India. It’s very classic Bollywood in some ways, one man trying to restore right in his world. But definitely the topic is different.”

Thakur doubts it’s the topic alone that propelled this film to success. He credits Akshay Kumar’s box office clout, along with a large spoonful of Bollywood sugar, in helping this message go down well.

There’s a peppy Hindi song under the toilet building scenes so viewers might just dance in their seats as the husband selects the perfect toilet and hardware. This is intercut with shots of villagers squatting in fields to defecate.

Mumbai isn’t immune

India’s largely middle class ticket buyers aren’t squeamish about seeing people squatting in fields. “They’ve grown up largely oblivious to this other India,” Thakur says. “But they know that open defecation is a major social reality for a lot of people.”

And India’s richest city Mumbai isn’t immune from the problem.

Just a week after the movie’s release, columnist and former actress Twinkle Khanna, (who happens to be Kumar’s wife), was out for a morning walk on the beach in Mumbai when she came across a man defecating in the open. She tweeted the photo – stirring up the defecation debate as well as a storm of criticism.

India’s moviegoers will soon move on, but the real toilet problem will linger.

Sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak has spent decades championing the cause of sanitation in India and knows toilets aren’t an easy sell. In rural areas, many consider defecating in an open space healthier and having a toilet in the home violates its purity. As the father in “Toilet” pointedly asks, “How can we build a toilet in the same courtyard where we worship?”

Pathak thinks the movie’s success will have a positive impact and motivate women in particular.

“All women deserve and must have toilets inside the house,” Pathak says, “The film’s lead actress says to her father-in-law, “Why should I hide myself [in modesty] from you, when I have to go outside for open defecation, exposing myself to others while relieving myself?”