Bhumi Pednekar and Akshay Kumar in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha

I wasn’t aware of the Clean India Mission before I saw Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, an enjoyable Bollywood musical currently screening at the AMC River East. But the film, which plays a bit like an extended public service announcement, explains the roots and aims of the movement in clear enough terms to educate outsiders like me.

In brief, the movement was launched three years ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to eliminate public defecation across India by erecting public toilets in rural communities. Many Indian villages are without modern plumbing, and people in these communities relieve themselves outdoors. While this has caused the spread of diseases (and, presumably, bad odors), many rural Indians have resisted modern plumbing, citing a cultural tradition that forbids using the bathroom in one’s home. The controversy surrounding the Clean India Mission might seem like an unusual topic for a musical—but if I’ve learned one thing from my limited exposure to Bollywood cinema, it’s that Indians can make musicals about pretty much anything.

makes the Clean India Mission the stuff of entertainment by situating it within the context of a familiar romantic tale. The film’s first hour relates the courtship and marriage of Keshav (Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar) and Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar). Keshav runs a bicycle shop in a small village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where he lives with his father, grandmother, and clownish younger brother. For years Keshav has wanted to marry, but his superstitious father won’t allow him to wed unless he finds a woman with two thumbs on her left hand. The shop owner, however lonely, takes solace in his work and family, putting off his dream. But when he delivers a bicycle to Jaya, who lives in a nearby town, the two quickly fall in love and Keshav determines to marry the young woman no matter what. Anticipating pushback from Keshav’s father, the two lovers create a fake second thumb for Jaya to fool the old man into thinking that she meets his ridiculous expectations. The deception works, and the lovers wed.

These passages convey the joys of falling in love and getting married in typical Bollywood fashion, making monogamous attachment seem like the greatest pleasure one can experience. The filmmakers even create conviviality from the initial friction between Keshav and Jaya, suggesting that lovers can have fun in overcoming interpersonal tensions. It helps that Kumar and Pednekar are an engaging onscreen couple—they generate chemistry even when bickering. The wedding scene of Toilet, filled with music and dance, is a highlight of the film, marking the culmination of the romantic story that has dominated the story thus far.

The couple’s happiness proves to be short-lived, however. Jaya grew up in a household with modern plumbing, and she balks at having to defecate outdoors once she moves to Keshav’s village. She’s not used to the lack of privacy; moreover she’s outraged that men from the community try to sneak a peek at her when she lifts her garments in the open field reserved for doing business. Jaya petitions her husband to build a toilet for the family household, but he initially resists. It’s only when Jaya moves back to her parents’ home that Keshav takes her demands seriously. He then resolves to introduce modern plumbing to his community with the same fervor that he pursued his wife in the opening hour of the film. Keshav’s plan—which suggests the Clean India Mission in miniature—inspires anger in many of his fellow villagers, who regard toilets as an attack on local traditions. Keshav ignores their outrage and builds a toilet on his property anyway (his construction efforts are accompanied by the movie’s catchiest song), but this makes his traditionalist father go ballistic and attempt to tear down the structure.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha

Missing his wife, the hero finds he must increase his efforts if he’s going to modernize his community and get her back. Keshav meets with Jaya to come up with ideas, and the spouses hatch a plot to force the resistant villagers to change their tune. Jaya will sue her husband for divorce on the grounds that he cannot provide her with a toilet. Her petition for divorce—the first one Keshav’s community has seen in 1,700 years—inspires a media frenzy, drawing national attention to the village’s lack of modern plumbing. (A credit at the end of Toilet informs viewers that this development was based on an actual case that occurred in an Indian village in 2012.) Federal government employees hear of the story and intervene on the couple’s behalf, locking the bathrooms in government buildings until the appropriate minister initiates the construction of a public toilet in Keshav’s village. The construction pleases even Keshav’s father, who’s changed his tune about toilets after his elderly mother tripped and broke her hip on her way to the field reserved for public defecation.

Toilet‘s mix of musical comedy and progressive politics reminded me a little of the Hollywood classic The Pajama Game. Like that film, Toilet makes social change seem desirable by linking it to romantic satisfaction. It also resembles The Pajama Game in presenting a headstrong young woman as an agent of social change. As played by Pednekar, Jaya is determined but never shrill—one recognizes in her desire for a toilet a concern for all the women in her community. Though more famous than Pednekar, Kumar yields to her charisma whenever the two are onscreen together, and this helps to make her the movie’s most compelling performer.

Ultimately, though, the real focus of Toilet is the Clean India Mission, which the film presents as necessary for national progress. Watching Toilet, I thought about how wonderful it would be if Hollywood started making musicals about pressing social issues in America. If someone can write a catchy number about building a toilet, surely there are good songs to be written about environmental protection or investing in public infrastructure.