Toilet is a love story, but it’s also a film with an agenda – raising awareness about sanitation needs in India. This is an agenda absolutely worthy of praise, but as Mayuri Bhattacharjee wrote yesterday on Feminism in India, Toilet portrays at least as many problematic behaviours and ideals as progressive ones. In particular, the film unquestioningly romanticises behaviour that can only be described as stalking.
The storyline runs something like this. Boy (Keshav) meets girl (Jaya), they fall in love, marry, and when Jaya discovers there’s no toilet in her new husband’s family home the main storyline (about the struggles of building toilets and establishing sanitation) begins. For angles on the sanitation aspect, see Bhattacherjee’s article. However by this point in the movie I, like many others, had already been turned off by the portrayal of Keshav and Jaya’s developing romance.
Keshav first catches sight of Jaya in a public place. His eyes pop out of his and he bothers her by physically getting in her way and spouting tired pick-up lines while he’s at it. He then proceeds to follow Jaya everywhere, secretly taking photographs of her without her permission, even going so far as to use one of her pictures in a public advertisement for his cycle shop. When Jaya comes to his office to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing, he steals her phone number and start to harass her that way as well. After being told ‘no’ a few more times that should be necessary (i.e. once), Keshav desists, at which point Jaya develops Stockholm Syndrome, misses his attention, and starts chasing him instead.
Stalking is a tired and frustrating trope in an absurdly large number of Bollywood movies. In my opinion, what makes these attitudes even more prominent in Toilet is their juxtaposition with condemnations of eve-teasing and several positive assertions of women’s rights. The film’s opening, for example, shows Jaya throwing a coconut at a man who is sexually harassing women in the street and him falling into a pile of manure. In other places the conservative custom of women having to cover their heads before elders is rejected, and much is made of Jaya being a ‘topper’ in her class. The fact she’s brainy is posited as one of the major reasons she is attractive. However this positive attitude towards women’s rights in certain contexts is undermined not just by the normalisation of harassment, but also a wider failure to recognise and challenge assumptions about women and femininity that result in a sustained, systematic disempowerment of women.
I was struck that only the women in the film are shown as having major problems with going to the toilet outside. The discomfort of Jaya is the main source of change, and the justification of her position is ultimately supported by a rebellion of the village women and an episode relating to Keshav’s aging grandmother (perhaps the only women Keshav’s hyper-religious father would need to ‘respect’). Whilst it is true that women are more likely to face problems such as sexual harassment when defecating outside this is due to underlying attitudes in society, as is the fact that women in rural India are forced to walk long distances and hide to relieve themselves whilst men (as is shown in the film) may squat quite openly nearer to the house or even in the view of others. This inequality, both in representation and in real life experience, is linked to notions of shame surrounding women’s bodies and bodily functions. By not raising the issue of whether men experience discomfort or are exposed to health risks more prevalently in the film I feel this aspect, which structurally underlies much of the problem, has also been allowed to slide. Whilst biological plumbing may make urination a less messy affair for men than women, I find it difficult to believe that anything other than social attitudes makes men more ‘comfortable’ with defecating in a bush than women.
The apparent contradiction and hypocrisy found in Toilet’s representations of women is in fact significant and instructive. Many individual members of society (Indian or otherwise) unconsciously live out these kinds of hypocrisies every day of their lives. A large number of well-meaning people actively profess liberal, progressive ideas about women’s rights and gender equality, but can be found to maintain patriarchal and gender-biased social scripts at other times when it suits them. Very often such people are not aware of the contradiction, and do not consider themselves to be behaving hypocritically. It’s about where they are in their personal journey. Toilet’s split-personality approach to women’s freedoms reminds us that not only is it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, but also that old habits (including thinking habits) die hard. We need to continue to resist the normalised everyday assumptions about women and women’s behaviour without complacency, because progress isn’t like flipping a switch or a one-time, holistic realisation that changes a person completely. Progress is a fractured, patchwork process, and we have to be prepared to tackle attitudes and behaviours (within society, with others, and even with ourselves) one idea at a time.