Indian women taking part in the 2014 International Toilet Festival in New Delhi. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty
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Why Bollywood is making a movie about open defecation

One in two people in India defecate in the open, but the solution isn’t as simple as just building more toilets. Now Bollywood is making a satirical comedy that hopes to change minds about sanitation.

Since I decided to write a book about sanitation, I’ve paid a lot of attention to India, because, as I always say, it has the worst and the best of sanitation. It has the worst statistics: of the one billion people who defecate in the open (in bushes, fields, by roadsides), 600 million are in India. China has a similar population to India but only one in ten people defecate in the open there. In India, it’s one in two. 300,000 Indian children die of diarrhoea every year, much of it caused by faecal particles from all that shit lying around, getting into food and water. When NGOs appeal for money for “clean water” they mean water not contaminated with excrement.

Yet diarrhoea is not only easily preventable, but easily curable with a simple sugar, salts and water solution. But finding the clean water to put in that solution is not simple. Nor, it turns out, is reducing open defecation. You’d expect that to someone without a toilet, the gift of a latrine or toilet from the government would mean you immediately stop “going outside”. Not according to fascinating research done by India’s RICE institute, which surveyed villages in five northern states in India, and found that over 40 per cent of households with a latrine still had a family member who chose to continue to shit outside.

Humans are curious creatures, and rational behaviour is often elusive. Solving sanitation is as much about understanding the human brain (software) as installing toilets (hardware). Research done in Benin into what makes people install a latrine – the same people who see their kids getting sick and dying from diarrhoea – found that the biggest motivator was to emulate the royal family. Elsewhere, reasons given for installing latrines include getting one up on the neighbours, or impressing visiting relatives. Improving one’s health, though this is the subject of most development organisation’s messaging, comes far down the list of triggers.

This understanding isn’t new. Advertisers realised this a century ago, when they started selling soap. Telling people it made them clean and healthy? Poor sales. Telling them it made them sexy and attractive to the opposite sex? Massive sales and soap bars in every bathroom from then on.

That’s why I find what India is doing fascinating. Not only that new Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in one of his first major speeches that India should build “toilets before temples”. This is an shocking and powerful thing to say in a country where many people think any association of toilets with religion is appalling, and where many people refuse to have a toilet in or near their home because they think it is religiously unclean. Not only because Sesame Street then introduced Raya, a puppet with long dark hair who is meant to persuade the children of Asia into clean habits and, hopefully, to pressurise their parents, as only children can, into installing or using latrines. But because there is finally an understanding that installing a latrine has to be a choice, not a government imposition. A toilet must be desired, not enforced, and all these steps are an understanding that to get people to change behaviour, we have to enlist emotions too.

Even so, I never thought, in seven years of writing and speaking about sanitation, that I would be saying that there will be a Bollywood film about open defecation. But it will be so. Ek Prem Katha [A Love Story] will be a satirical comedy. There’s not much more information about it other than what producer Shital Bhatia told the Times of India: that “this story is about a man who makes a toilet for his wife as the symbol of love like the Taj Mahal”. Far-fetched? Bonkers? But I can guess the storyline because I once met a young woman who lived through something similar, and who probably inspired the film.

I was once on a travelling sanitation carnival in Uttar Pradesh when someone rushed up to me. “Rose! Rose! There’s a real ‘no loo no I do’!” I immediately jumped up and ran outside to meet her. For about a year, I’d been hearing of campaigns in India where brides were encouraged to get their prospective grooms to install a toilet as part of the wedding deal. It had been dubbed “no loo, no I do”, but I’d assumed it was mostly well-meaning propaganda. But no. Here was Priyanka and her husband Amjit. She was 23, he was a year or so older. They had had an arranged marriage, but it had become a love match. The only problem was that when Priyanka left her parents’ home for Amjit’s, she was woken at 4am by her mother-in-law and told to accompany her to a nearby field to go to the toilet. She was terrified. She was educated, but this was unlit rural India and she was scared of ghosts, and snakes, and men. There have been high-profile, hideous cases of girls going out to the fields to use the toilet who have been raped, and lynched, and I am sure there are thousands more cases that are unseen and unheard. Priyanka, who had grown up with a household latrine, was appalled. She did something that in the conservative world of rural, caste-bound India, is extremely shocking. She left. Her parents were ashamed; she was ashamed, but she stuck it out. Eventually an Indian NGO, Sulabh International, which has installed a million latrines in India, heard of her case, installed the fanciest toilet for miles around, and Priyanka and Amjit were reunited. If that’s the story of Ek Prem Katha, then I’m all in favour. Not least because Priyanka is a proper heroine. But because bringing a toilet into the world, when there are still 2.4 billion people without one, is by any reckoning a very happy ending.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era