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India's toilet culture needs a good scrubbing

Bollywood film tackling open defecation doubles as propaganda for Modi

I grew up in a village in the foothills of the majestic Himalayas, frolicking with friends in massive playgrounds and watching white cranes fly over lush green fields.

The rice fields were beautiful and enticing, but also no-go areas for us -- the "genteel kids" -- because a portion of the cultivated land also served as a vast open-air toilet for the villagers.

With time, these fields vanished to make way for homes -- concrete houses with toilets -- for settlers like us. The urban settlement is now "open defecation-free," a term referring to places where people no longer defecate in open areas.

The transition happened gradually and so quietly over the years that it hardly seemed like an extraordinary story. Looking back, it was. Especially if you consider that half of India's rural population still defecates in the open.

So I must admit I was mildly excited about "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha," or "Toilet: A Love Story" -- a new Bollywood film on the theme of open defecation with the flamboyant superstar Akshay Kumar. It made me rethink the ordinariness of the uneventful transition of the village.

I approached the film with realistic optimism and wasn't surprised at its nuance-free, reductionist handling of a complex subject. What came as a blow was the fact that director Shree Narayan Singh's romantic comedy, based on a true story, was not cinema for its own sake, but an exercise in sycophancy. "Toilet," like a propaganda film, is an extolment of the ruling government and promotes the Swachh Bharat -- or Clean India -- Mission, the pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014, soon after he came to power, and set a rather unrealistic target of making India open defecation-free by 2019. "Toilet" campaigns for that goal.

In the film, Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) leaves her husband Keshav (Kumar) after discovering on their wedding night that his house doesn't have a toilet and that she has to join other women in their march to a distant place to defecate. Keshav launches a crusade against the bureaucracy and against his traditional, high-caste father who cannot imagine a toilet in the same courtyard as his holy basil. By the end, Keshav has a toilet built for his wife and gets the Clean India Mission to clear a plan to build public toilets for other village women.

Three million toilets have been built in India since 2014, the film tells us. "All the scams took place before four years ago," Jaya declares when speaking of her research on toilet-related corruption -- in other words, before Modi came to power. And the end of the film offers a not-so-subtle announcement: "Join us in making India open defecation-free."

"Toilet," released in August, is the highest-grossing Hindi film this year, earning over $20 million. Yogi Adityanath, a hard-liner Hindu priest who became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, where the film is set, six months ago appointed Kumar as brand ambassador of the state's Swachh Bharat Mission.

Kumar is known for his close ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling Hindu nationalist party to which both Modi and Adityanath belong. Kumar has brushed aside allegations that the film is "agenda-driven," saying "some people in this world just want to make things better," according to news reports. All Indians want a clean country, he said, not just the BJP.

And indeed, what could possibly be wrong in wanting to work toward a clean India? But "Toilet" assumes sinister proportions if you consider the climate of North Korean-style sycophancy creeping into India's popular culture.

The current season of the television show "Kaun Banega Crorepati" ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?") has host Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan slipping in questions on government programs and the prime minister.

Bollywood and the media have shown remarkable alacrity to grovel at the government's feet. Those who speak up against the government are bullied into silence. Actor Aamir Khan lost his endorsement deal with e-commerce company Snapdeal and no longer is the face of the Incredible India tourism campaign after he dared to criticize the intolerance in the country.

"Toilet" does its best to please the powers that be, and it appears to have succeeded. But it is not the story of my village or the many others like it that had come a long way well before Swachh Bharat Mission became a buzzword, and long before Modi came to power.

Sabhyata, or civilization, did not begin in 2014.

Anuradha Sharma is an India-based writer and journalist.

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