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Toilet, New India, and the Power of Storytelling

Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organization in a recent interview laid emphasis on the role of ‘storytelling’ in bringing change with regards to hygiene and sanitation. In case of India, toilet, hygiene and sanitation have been strongly promoted by the government since 2014. On 2 October 2014, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign was launched by PM Modi. The government has undertaken world’s biggest toilet building project emphasizing on the use of toilets. According to Val Curtis, director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Environmental Health Group, this is the biggest, most successful behavioural-change campaign in the world.

On 15th August 2014, PM Modi became the first PM of independent India to talk about sanitation, hygiene, and toilet in the history of India’s Independence Day speeches. Never in 67 years of Independence Day speeches had there ever been such topics discussed. This gave rise to discussions, debates, and awareness programs across the country resulting from the unfamiliar tone set by the political establishment. Yet, for the subject to become truly mainstream, there needed to be another way more than PM Modi’s speech and the launching of the campaign through which the message could reach the common people easily. Simply put, there needed to be a story.

‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ released in August 2017 became the instrument through which the message was conveyed. It is a story of strong opposition from a newly married to defecate in the open since her husband’s house lack the toilet facility. The movie showcases crude reality of Indian villages, plight of women, and the habit of defecating in the open. The tagline ‘Ek Prem Katha’ translates to ‘A love story’ which is an unusual combination. But being the first mainstream Bollywood film to discuss the topic of toilet as the central theme it had to be education wrapped in entertainment.

While regional cinema portrays the region, its people and culture; Bollywood provides a unique opportunity of representing diversities of the country. Many criticise the view of Bollywood being presented as the representative of Indian cinema and therefore, India. Bollywood represents nationally dominant cinema and not national cinema. But since each regional cinema represent that region and culture, they represent a part of the country. This means, none of the regional cinema represents India as a whole. On the other hand, Bollywood has developed its own brand in international cultural events earning its name in representing India. Thus, it is now in India’s interest to be conscious of what it presents in Bollywood because that inevitably will be associated with the country.

At the climax of the movie of ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, the female protagonist has a monologue narrating the plight of the women and emphasizing each house should have a toilet. It is a story intending behaviour change that can be promoted through the schemes developed by the government. It is a mainstream Bollywood movie that has songs, dance, and happy ending. It ends with the female protagonists winning the cause. A toilet is constructed inside the house and the father-in-law who throughout the film is seen apposing the construction of the toilet, finally comes around.

The movie was not state funded, but it was made tax free in Uttar Pradesh, the state in which the story is based. Moreover, Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh had set a target to go open-defecation free by December 2018. Thus, engaging with the subject of hygiene and toilet broadly from the perspective of the government scheme folded inside a social cause, made it a representative of the cultural ripples that were generated due to the political environment. Moreover, the movie provided an impetus to the clean India drive initiating a new discussion and need for change. Thus, becoming another tool in the tool kit employed for promoting both use of toilet and ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

India does not have a single designated cultural policy. Yet there are government policy implications in culture that can be interpreted as either promotion/obstruction of culture. This is because government participation in culture is also an intervention. The Clean India Drive or the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has the overriding narrative of creating the image of New India. It is broadly a promotion of the government’s flagship scheme of Clean India Drive as part of creating the image of New India.

Although the efforts towards sanitation and cleanliness began even before the current government took power, like for example, in late 2011, the World Toilet Organization established its ‘SaniShop’ model in India to increase access to rural households to safe and affordable sanitation. But the toilet as a topic of mainstream discussion with policy implications was robustly established under the current government. It is no surprise that PM Modi himself had reaffirmed the importance of storytelling in his September 2020’s ‘Maan Ki Bath’ broadcast.

Storytelling is a powerful instrument that has always been part of human life. By employing this instrument in changing the behaviour around ‘toilet’ showcases the ability of storytelling for any and every topic. It’s the story tha