Well, that was an interesting movie going experience! One half a charming unusual love story, one half a massive Modi propaganda movie. And then a hidden third half in a parallel dimension that is what the movie really wanted to be about and couldn’t. The movie I thought the trailer was promising us.
So, I did some minimal research before I watched this. The “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign which is its obvious inspiration started in 2005. It was sponsored by the Haryana state government and was mostly a slogan campaign, lots of posters and stuff. The goal was just to plant the idea and then rely on the people to run with it.
According to the little bit of research I did, the campaign was definitely successful. Not so much in getting toilets made as in getting people to talk about it. That is, there is equivelant success from areas where the government got involved and built toilets. But it’s more cost effective than that, since it is just a few posters, not necessarily actually building things. Plus, the World Bank massive toilet campaign in 2001 failed because the people didn’t want to use them that way, used them as lean tos or storage areas instead. This is working, it’s in soap operas and pop culture, people are learning that using toilets is a good modern value.
Like I said, it started in Haryana, and it was most successful there for a reason that kind of makes the toilet thing seem small. Haryana, as we all know I am sure, has one of the worst sex ratios in the world. Female foeticide and infanticide is rampant. And therefore, fastforwarding 20 years, there are way too few brides available for the single man. Women are suddenly a hot commodity. And can afford to be picky about who they will choose to marry. “No Toilet, No Bride” is a fun slogan and a great human interest story, but it only works because of a larger social issue.
And now we have this movie. Which erases allllllllll that history I just gave you. First, the opening screen says that Gandhi started the campaign, and Modi is now bringing it forward. Totally skipping the 2001 World Bank attempt, the 2005 start of the Haryana campaign, the fact that “No Toilet No Bride” has been in the popular national consciousness since at least 2007 and Modi/BJP only came to power a couple years ago. Gandhi-Modi, nothing else ever existed. And then the story of the film pretends most of the time that this is an issue no one in the village or area would have cared about if it weren’t for our noble hero and heroine. Not that it is something that is in soap operas and posters and everywhere already. Maybe if it was set in 2004, and argued that it was telling the story of the start of this campaign, it would work. But then we wouldn’t get to have all that lovely Modi propaganda thrown in.
The beginning of the film works the best. The romance is really sweet, two strong people finding each other. And the early parts of the marriage, when Bhumi Pednakar is struggling to figure out how she can live like this, and Akshay is slowly coming to sympathize and help her to find a solution, that kind of works too. Although it is still frustrating that Akshay doesn’t seem to realize what a terrible situation this is for her and that she isn’t making these requests lightly.
But the second half is a mess. We lose our characters entirely because it is trying to deal with about 15 social issues at once that all coincide. And at the same time ignoring the obvious real cause of all these problems. Because we have to spend sooooooooooooo long slavishly proving our devotion to the Modi governmental theories. This isn’t even about whether or not I agree with Modi, it’s that propaganda makes bad films. The message starts controlling things instead of the characters.
More research shows that this was possibly the last major release to be censored by Pahlaj Nihalani’s censorship board. Again, whether or not you agree with Modi, I think we are all aware that Nihalani was kind of a nut and a disaster and way way too radical in his thinking. He believed that the purpose of the censor board was to protect Indian “heritage”. The Indian censor board has always been one of the most strigant and powerful in the world, but Nihalani took it to a whole new level.
In this film in particular, supposedly he ordered 3-8 cuts (stories vary). One of which was a mention of the consumption of eggs by Brahmins. Which kind of gives you an idea of the “heritage” Nihalani was protecting. Those are the actual cuts, but the real damage is the expectation of cuts. A film about a massive social issue, one which relates to gender and caste and village versus city and all kinds of things, has a lot of landmines to avoid if it wants to get the Nihalani censor board to approve it. I have to wonder, was the original version of this film something completely different? Something which mentioned female infanticide, which acknowledged the strength of the village women who started this campaign, and most of all, which more firmly marked the culpability of the Panchayats and the general old Hindu male power structure in causing it? Is that the hidden film I am sensing beneath, the movie they threw away in order to get a guaranteed censor pass?