Open Defecation Goes Mainstream in New Bollywood Love Story


By Randa El-Tahawy

  • The female protagonist is a strong character who stands up to patriarchy and fights for the sanitation rights of the village women, says WSSCC’s Kamini Prakash
  • In India, nearly half of the 1.3 billion population defecates in the open and 10% of under-5 deaths are caused by diarrhoea
  • Inspired by the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission the movie sheds light on the country’s sanitation issue through a love story

A Bollywood movie tackles India’s Open Defecation crisis through the story of a man winning his bride’s love with a toilet.

"Toilet Aik Prem Katha (Toilet a Love Story)", which stars popular actor Akshay Kumar, was released on August 11 in India and is already among the most successful Hindi movies of 2017.

Inspired by the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, or SBM, initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a clean India by 2019, it tells the story of a bride refusing to get married unless her fiancé installs a bathroom in their house.

With nearly half of India’s 1.3 billion people defecating in the open and 10% of under-5 child deaths caused by diarrhoea in India, the lack of adequate access to sanitation and hygiene also puts women and girls at risk of sexual assault.

“It is a really good movie based on collective behaviour change and women empowerment,” says WSSCC’s India coordinator Vinod Mishra, based in Delhi.

Kamini Prakash, WSSCC Technical Officer for Equality and Non-Discrimination commended the gender dimension displayed.

“The female protagonist is a strong character that stands up to her husband and father-in-law and fights for the sanitation rights of the village women.  The film also critiqued the dominant notion of masculinity,” she says.

 A court has recently granted a woman a divorce over the absence of a home toilet, that could perhaps be tied to the film’s success.

But the movie also faces some criticism over its portrayal of the problem.

“The film does not have any input on diseases and stunting. Sanitation has more complex issues,” says Mishra.

Prakash adds that even the gender messaging gets confusing at times.

“The key message seems to have been - "no toilet, no bride" - which to my mind again is a mistake, if we want to achieve open defecation free status.  Are toilets just for women?  Does this mean that it's ok for men to continue going out to defecate?”

WSSCC has nearly 600 individual members in India and the Council actively supports SBM. Through the Global Sanitation Fund, 1.38 million people have been enabled to live in Open Defecation Free environments and 2.91 million people were supported with improved toilets in the states of Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand.

As part of its Leave No One Behind approach to address equality and inclusion in sanitation and hygiene, WSSCC hosted in 2016 the Sanitation Action Summit in Mumbai, fostering a dialogue on ways to achieve a clean India for all.