Well, I’ve been putting this off, because I didn’t have much to say. And also because a got a nice string of abuse on my no-spoilers review. Which is why I am a little mad at this movie. Because it’s leaving me open for abuse! Being so political that I can’t avoid commenting on the politics, even though I want to run a nice film analysis blog that only deals with social issues in generalities, not specifics. And clearly it is political, because there are angry people looking for me to say bad things about it. Oh well, I’ll spoil it for you all anyway, and maybe someone will leave a nice comment on this one.
I really want to dig into the specifics of the plot and the message here, because I feel like it lost its way a bit. So first, whole plot in two paragraphs (most of which was in the trailer):
Akshay is Manglik, his superstitious father won’t let him get married, even though he is 37 and has had plenty of sneaky affairs with women who ended up marrying someone else. Akshay meets Bhumi Pednakar who is a village girl, but educated. He follows her around for a bit and then when she confronts him, tells her that she should be grateful he is interested and he is ready to marry her. They fall in love and marry after playing a slight trick on his father who has insisted that Akshay can only marry a woman with 2 thumbs on her left hand. But, as we saw in the trailer, Bhumi finds out that first night that they have no toilet. And she just can’t go in a field like the other women. Akshay offers to build one, but his father won’t let them. So they find other options, sneaking to a relative’s house, and taking Bhumi to use the train toilet every morning when it stops in the village for six minutes. Until one day the train starts while she is in the toilet and she lets it take her away, back to her parents. Telling Akshay she will return when there is a toilet.
Akshay is now determined and with Bhumi’s help discovers that the government is supposed to be building toilets and confronts the official in charge. Who explains that no one cares about toilets, the people don’t want them or know how to use them, there is sewage lines throughout the village but no one ever bothered to hook up to them. Akshay determines to build his own toilet in the yard, despite his father, after hearing Bhumi talk to her parents about the dangers to women of open defecation. And then his father tears it down. With no other option, Bhumi and Akshay come up with a plan, to file for divorce because of lack of toilet and use the publicity to win over the village and the government. The government officials take action, locking the doors of the toilets in the offices that need to approve the file (here’s where they actually say “like Modi did”) until the file is approved. And the village women are won over also (they have been objecting that it is against tradition), but that part is kind of left behind. And finally, Akshay’s father is convinced after his own mother twists her ankle and needs to use the half-destroyed toilet in the yard. Happy ending, the family can use the family toilet and the village will get new public toilets courtesy of the government.
So, I mean, WHAT THE HECK??? First, Akshay’s father is so backwards he won’t allow a toilet even when his daughter-in-law desperately needs it. Sure, he changes his mind on that issue, but what about all the other issues that can come up which he will choose abstract tradition over the safety of the woman in front of him? The happy ending needs to be them overriding his authority in the home once and for all and telling him he is wrong.
Second, we go from “the government was supposed to build toilets” to “the people didn’t use them right” to “okay, the lower government offices are corrupt and awful, but our executive branch can take extreme measures and fix everything and that is good.” It’s a confusing message that doesn’t work in the simple human story we started out with and is clearly only in there because it fits the current mood of the politics in India.
And third, aaaaaalllllllllllllll of this is explicitly women’s fault. Over and over again there are speeches saying “it is you women holding yourselves back! Saying you don’t want toilets and are happy with what you have! Let me ‘mansplain’ to you exactly how and why you are wrong until you finally wake up!” Yes, technically Bhumi is the first to object, but it is Akshay who takes up her argument and moves on from there, coming between her and the other women instead of letting her speak to them directly.
Oh, and fourth, it is a really sweet romance that eventually ultimately fails because it fails in the very vow he made her when they first fell in love, that he would fight the world for her. Because he fights the world, so long as it doesn’t involve going against his own relatives.
(Oh how nice, he invites her to beat him with a stick. And then goes home and continues to put up with his father who sees her as less than human.)
Now, what confuses me, is that the actual romantic/first half part of the film seemed to understand all of this very well. Bhumi is strong and the impetus for change (not the government or a man taking her campaign away from her), Akshay’s Dad and other old Hindu men are clearly in the wrong, and Akshay promises to fight for Bhumi against the world.
Okay, there is the thing where the woman gets made at the man stalking her, and then is convinced that really she should be flattered by his interest, which always bugs me a bit, because it seems like such a gross justification, all those men in the audience thinking “yeah, that’s right! She’s just mad at me for secretly taking her photo and following her everywhere because she is too stupid to appreciate me!” Instead of thinking “maybe I should just say ‘hi’ instead of stalking her?” But I can get past that, it’s in enough films I can blow right by it.
No, what bothers me is what happens after that. Akshay says he will fight the world for her, they fall in love, he proposes, the families are happy, blah blah blah. But, setting aside the toilet issue, she is still expected post-marriage to cook all the food, stay in the home, keep her face covered when her father-in-law walks by. This is a terrible life, and this isn’t the life she was promised by Akshay. And the film never really addresses that. Addresses that it isn’t just the toilet, it’s every part of a traditional Brahmin village woman’s life that is really sucky. And if he loves this woman, he has to stand up to his father for her. Heck, he has to see how sucky it is all on his own without her having to leave him to prove it!
And, to expand that, it really bothers me that the film thinks the audience will need this explained to them. Forget open defecation and all of that. We are told that women “go” only once a day at 4am. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a woman in a situation where you have had to “hold” it for hours at a time, but it is extremely painful and medically dangerous. We aren’t talking about some abstract outraged modesty situation. We are talking about bladder infections, permanent damage, distracting pain. And that’s the one argument the film never makes. I kept waiting for Bhumi to simply challenge Akshay and his father and brother to “hold” it for 24 hours, 4am to 4am, and see how they feel. And the fact that this argument is not made makes me wonder if the people behind this film have ever been in that situation? Or spoken with someone who has?
And what is so disturbing is that the beginning of the film felt so grounded in these characters. Akshay was slowly but surely learning to understand Bhumi’s concerns, she was trying to explain them both to him and to the other women of the village. And the film was showing us in ways both large and small how those very “traditional” “modest’ types of men were in fact the most disgusting of them all. Akshay’s father peeing in the courtyard and touching Akshay’s face without washing his hand, an old man in a dhoti which flies up and shows everything underneath, men hunting through the fields to see women defecating at night and then denying they did it during the day. The message was ramping up, that Bhumi would be brave enough to speak out and show the hypocrisy, and Akshay would be her faithful servant, convinced himself and then following her lead.
But instead, we take a sudden veer off of that. Akshay takes control of the campaign and Bhumi is left behind, and then even Akshay is left behind and the government magically does everything. Most of all, instead of Bhumi being the voice of reason, the old Panchayat men being the enemy, and women being the victims, somehow it turns into women being the enemy, Bhumi being silent, and the Panchayat being somehow ignored as part of the problem. The problem is phrased as “culture”. Which is one of those great non-specific things like “terrorism” or “racism” or “communalism” or “violence” which everyone can get behind and say “yeah, I’m against that!” Instead of using a specific example which might solve a specific problem, like “I’m against this guy, right here, this old Brahmin man who can recite the Vedas but has no concept of female reproductive organs or what is going on in his own house, who is so selfish and blind to the needs of others that he is dooming his family and village to misery so that he can feel better, who deserves for his sons to throw him out of their house in order to save their own lives and the life of his daughter-in-law.” Where’s that movie?
Oh, and where’s the movie about the brave village women on the forefront of the toilet campaigns? Who came up with their own plans and risked everything to fight for their rights? Who, most of all, were well aware that their situation was horrible (after all, they were the ones in that situation) and were suffering in it not because of their own blindness or laziness or whatever this movie is proposing, but because they had no power to speak up against those same selfish blind old men mentioned above.
(These women. Where’s their movie?)
So, yeah, good opening, failed in the second half. Fun movie, just really infuriating when you start to pick apart the politics of it. And now I will go back to playing whack a mole with abusive commentators. Geesh, Akshay! Why couldn’t you just make a nice romance that no one will care if I do or don’t like?
UPDATE: just reread the above and realized it might sound like you aren’t allowed to comment if you don’t agree with me. Absolutely comment! Tell me your alternative opinion, give me additional background, whatever! Just, you know, don’t call me a term for female genitalia or suggest I would feel better if a masterbated. That’s kind of my base line for when a comment gets blocked.