A Bollywood star made a feature film about a toilet. Why that's a serious issue in India

In May 2011, Anita Narre, a woman in a remote village in central India, abandoned her husband because he didn’t have a toilet in his house. Now her move has inspired a Bollywood film featuring one of India’s biggest movie stars.

“Toilet: A Love Story,” which stars Akshay Kumar and opened in India on Friday, tackles the problem of open defecation. More than 500 million Indians lack access to toilets, accounting for three-fifths of the world’s population who must go to the bathroom outdoors.

“Hearing the damning statistics linked to open defecation was enough to trigger my urge to make a difference through film,” Kumar said in an email interview to The Times.

“I just can’t fathom how we’ve been able to launch rockets [to] Mars and the moon but still not been able to build toilets to end open defecation across the country.”

The lack of basic sanitation is linked to high levels of disease and puts women and girls at greater risk. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 50% of rape cases in India occur when women go to relieve themselves in the open.

It is an unlikely subject for Bollywood, famous for its lavish love stories and action sequences featuring beautiful stars in exotic locales. The film portrays a village bicycle seller – played by Kumar and based on Narre’s real-life husband, Shivram Narre – who struggles to build a toilet in order to get his wife to come back to him.

It addresses taboos prevalent in parts of rural India, where many consider it unclean to have a toilet inside the house. The man’s father, a conservative from the lofty Brahmin caste of Hindus, strongly opposes building the toilet. Other villagers mock the wife, played by Bhumi Pednekar, for demanding one, saying it goes against “Indian traditions and roots.”

Women are shown waking before sunrise to relieve themselves in farmlands, covering their faces in case a passerby shoots a glance. Kumar’s character infuses the situation with humor, at one point stealing a mobile toilet from a film set for his wife to use.

“This is essentially a love story,” Kumar said, “but when you scratch beneath the surface, there are hard-hitting facts and issues underlined in this film.”

In preparing for the film, Kumar met the Narres and other Indians who lacked toilets, an experience he described as “eye-opening beyond imagination.” The star’s previous movies, “Airlift” and “Rustom,” were big-budget movies about the armed forces and played to India’s rising nationalism.

There is jingoism in “Toilet,” too, which plays into the popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Clean India” campaign, better known by its Hindi name, “Swachh Bharat.” In promoting the film, Kumar tweeted support for Modi’s initiative, prompting the Indian leader to respond that the movie was a “good effort to further the message of cleanliness.”

Critics say the “Clean India” campaign has failed to live up to promises. Last month, the leader of the wealthy western state of Maharashtra, run by Modi’s party, declared the commercial capital of Mumbai to be open defecation-free, even though many city residents know that to be untrue.

Last week, a picture of a man apparently urinating by a roadside in front of a poster for “Toilet” went viral.

Supriya Sonar, an activist in Mumbai with the Right to Pee campaign, a group that advocates for better sanitation, said that while she hadn’t seen the movie, it was a welcome step to raise awareness of the problem in cities and rural areas alike.

“Other stakeholders should also contribute,” Sonar said. “We need to change notions.”

Whether audiences will see the film largely rests on Kumar’s bankability. Initial reviews of “Toilet” have been tepid at best, with one headline writer unable to resist declaring, “Akshay Kumar’s Film Stinks to High Heaven.”

But the actor said he had no regrets about taking on the subject in a commercial release.

“Toilets are still a taboo subject in India,” he said. “I am not bothered about box-office collections. I don’t know how many people will watch the film eventually, but even if 5% helped build toilets, I will feel my film is successful.”

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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