Why you should give a shit about Toilet Ek Prem Katha

I must begin with a disclaimer that this is not a totally unbiased review. But then again, which review really is. I suppose when you buy into any review you are first agreeing to buy into the reviewer’s lens of looking at life.
So let me declare upfront that I am a major toilet lover. My said love for toilets has grown to insane levels over the past 2 years, when, as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission team, I spent the better part of my waking hours working on getting toilets to everyone in our country, and getting everyone in our country into toilets. And so, my review of a movie with the word ‘toilet’ in its title is bound to be far from objective.
That said, let us dive in to this (unpaid) advertisement of a review for TEPK.
You must watch Toilet Ek Prem Katha. I won’t even pretend to do a pros and cons analysis here. Except the pros. Pandering to this age of listicles, here is a list of 5 reasons you must watch TEPK:

1. Because Potty Jokes!

When you book a ticket for a movie dealing with a social issue, you pretty much expect humour to have gone down the toilet. Thankfully, when the social issue is toilets, there is always potty humour to the rescue. And TEPK leverages this abundantly.

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My favorite thing about this movie is that it will go down in history as a comedy film.

It is easy to make a dark and serious film about a dark and serious issue. The makers of TEPK, especially Akshay Kumar, have done a great service to this issue, however, by choosing to tell this story through a mass entertainer. The movie has all the makings of a mainstream Bollywood hit – songs, dances, action, romance, Sunny Leone – but my favourite part is its riotous humour.

Watch TEPK for the stomach ache this movie will give you laughing!

2. Because (Bhumi Pednekar)/2

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Bhumi Pednekar, or at least what remains of her since we last saw her in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, is awesome. (And I am not just saying this because the lady is my new personal weight loss hero.) What a star she is. Only 2 films old and already lights up the screen every time she is on it. Bhumi will make you fall in love with Jaya – the girl who dared ask for the toilet.

While Jaya falling for her stalker in the first half is no-doubt an opportunity lost for an iconic character (some behavior change needed within Bollywood on that front), my favorite Jaya dialogue in the movie comes after the interval. When asked who she holds responsible for her woes, she does not blame her spineless husband, or her headstrong (and very wrong!) father-in-law, or the villagers who have rallied against toilets because of their reluctance to break old habits. She blames every woman who will step out of the house again, tomorrow morning, lota in hand, to answer nature’s call. Topper Bahu, as she is scornfully called by the villagers who cannot fathom this insane demand of hers, truly essays the role real women of rural India are playing today in the Swachh Bharat movement.

We have all seen and heard enough of the narrative that portrays women as the poor abla naaris who get molested when they go out to defecate and who have to put nature’s call on hold till its dark outside due to a lack of toilets in their homes.

Jaya, and thousands of Jayas of India, have turned that narrative on its head. They play, not silent victims, but leaders in this movement of change. Refer this physically challenged lady sarpanch who made her village ODF, and this pregnant tribal woman who got her hands dirty and built her own toilet instead of waiting for a man to rescue her, and this absolute star of a woman who went to the extent of mortgaging her gold jewelry to get herself and ladies around her a toilet. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of a man’s support – none of these things are stopping these women champions in our country today – a fact that TEPK brings beautifully to light through Jaya.

Watch it for Bhumi. And for all the women she plays.

3. Because Liquid!

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Fellow fans of Pyaar ka Punchnama (part 1) would feel my enthusiasm for this one.

Sorry, Divyendu Sharma, you are a fine fine actor, but you will always be Liquid to us. Perhaps it is not possible to pay a higher compliment to an actor, than when a character they play becomes their identity to viewers.

Liquid stars in TEPK as, well, Liquid. His name is different, of course, but his character is just as in-your-face hilarious. His comic timing is perfect as always, and his dialogues are pure gold. As a result, not one line delivered by him goes without receiving an uproarious laugh by the audience.

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Watch the movie for Liquid Returns, PKP fans, especially those who, like me, jilted PKP2 because how dare they make a sequel without Liquid!

4. Because “Duniya Chali Mars Pe

TEPK is a wonderful mirror to our increasingly sanskaari samaaj, which is turning sanskaari in all the wrong ways. A lovely dialog from the movie is, “Sanskriti ko toh aapne bas Sanskrit bana ke rakh diya hai.”

In a time where the scriptures are quoted to justify the most ridiculous of stances – whether it is open defecation or the efficacy of Hanuman Chalisa in ghost extermination – TEPK depicts hilariously how the reciters of scriptures often bend their interpretations to retrofit them to the mood of the week.

Right from Frame 1, which shows this side-splitting wedding, TEPK never really eases on the satire on our so-called values that are inflicted on an unwilling disadvantaged majority to serve the interests of a handful.

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Watch TEPK if you think double standards and sheer logic-fails in the name of sanskaars is an insult to both logic and sanskaars.

5. Because Toilets!

Okay I am probably more excited about this last one than you. So let me draw a thoroughly presumptuous character analysis of you based purely on the fact that you are reading this article right now. Which gives me 2 data points about you: You are an English speaker and you have access to an internet connection. Here goes the extrapolation from there:

  • You are a city dweller who has never really known a life without a toilet.
  • You probably think that that one time you had to poop in the open that one time on a trek was an experience of a lifetime.
  • That story is probably your best party story to tell friends over drinks.
  • You will probably be found fondly reminiscing about that experience with your grandkids in a few decades.
  • And you probably think that everyone who does not have access to a toilet is a poor downtrodden person living in abject poverty.
  • You are probably imagining a crying malnutritioned kid with a visible ribcage even as you read this.

So far so correct?

I am sorry if I am wrong here, and even more sorry if, more likely, I am absolutely right and you hate me for it now. But the reason I may be right is that this was also me until I started working with the Swachh Bharat Mission a little under 2 years ago. The reality, as I have discovered now, is really surprising. Here are just some of the fascinating things I have learnt in this time:

Did you know that there is a village in India which is called the chaar choodi gaanv – meaning the four bangles village, a reference to the logo of Audi. Every family in this village owns at least one Audi. And every morning, the family sits in their air-conditioned Audi to drive to the village outskirts to take a dump.

 

Did you know that many families that have toilets use them sparingly, or not at all, out of fear of ‘who will clean it’? It is usually the women of the household who have to maintain a toilet, and often the entire family wistfully imagines the good old days of rampant casteism when certain communities would have done this job without complaint.

 

Did you know that there is a village in Rajasthan where every family owns an average of 13 cars, every house is a multi-storeyed pucca structure with lavish interiors, and yet no house has a toilet?

 

And did you know that many rural men think it is manly to go out for defecation, many women think it is their only time to gossip with their girl friends, and many people find a toilet too constricted when compared to the open air arena where they usually do their business with natural ventilation?

 

At the same time, were you aware that over 1000 children die in our country everyday due to diseases that spread due to open defecation, such as diarrhea? This is equivalent to 2 jumbo jets full of small children crashing every day. Imagine if one such accident actually happened – imagine the hue and cry, the media coverage, the demands for resignations of Ministers. And yet, this happens quietly on a daily basis and we hear nothing about it.

The two points I am trying to make here are that (1) open defecation is a problem that goes beyond just the ickiness of shitting in the open, and (2) that it is not always people who don’t have a choice that practice it. There are many in our country who choose to defecate in the open. TEPK tells us the story of one such family.

And this, to me, is the most important reason you should not only go watch TEPK, but why you should tell all your friends and family to watch it. Send you driver, your housekeeper, your cook to watch the movie with their families – fund their tickets if you have to. Drive business towards this film. Make it a commercial success, so that more mainstream actors and filmmakers start telling such stories, until there are no more stories like this left to tell in our country.

My salute to this film crew and to everyone who buys a TEPK ticket.

Watch it because you give a shit!

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To Babu or not to Babu

This piece was originally published on the website Gradstory in 2014, soon after the UPSC results for the year came out. Back then, I was a little under 2 years old in the civil services. Today, I am a little over a year old out of the civil services.

I continue to work closely with the Government of India in my professional capacity. I continue to be close with friends still in the trade. It continues to be a job I deeply respect and admire. And I continue to hope that, with time, more and more young and talented people will choose to join the services for the right reasons.20819120.cms_-520x245

Meanwhile, here is the article I once wrote from the other side, reproduced again in its original form, in honour of Civil Services Day 2017. Go (self-dabba-carrying) Babus! You know who you are.

It is that time of the year again. The UPSC results are out. Over a thousand new entrants make their way jubilantly into the bureaucracy of the country. Many will be publicly felicitated on this grand success of theirs. Village panchayats will put up pandaals to celebrate the good fortune. Local Godmen and goons will wash their feet with milk. (True story, happened with a colleague.) Much merriment and press coverage shall ensue.
Felicitation

Every year, around this time, as my Facebook feed gets inundated with these declarations of success, I wonder how many are thinking of this moment as the beginning of their life’s hard work, rather than as the culmination of it. If my personal experience is anything to go by, there are precious few.

What attracts you most to the job a bureaucrat? Is it the power? The prestige? The under-the-table income? The government-sponsored car? The peon who hurriedly comes to open the government-sponsored car’s gate and carries your dabba up the stairs for you?

If yes, let me save you some long reading. This piece is not for you. Also, while I have your attention, I do not like you. Seriously. Do us all a solid, and carry your own damned dabba for once. Kthxbai.

Bureaucracy

Assuming that you are continuing to read on, you are either insulted and fishing for an excuse to hurl insults back at me, or belong to the camp that is attracted to this job for its contributive potential. You probably want to give something back to society and see the Civil Services as a means to that end.

You are among the precious few.

Welcome to bureaucracy. I like you.

And since I like you so much, here is a token of my appreciation – a heads up about the life you just signed up for:

#1 I just called you “the precious few”. That makes you a minority. 

Brace yourself  to know what it feels like

Brace yourself to know what that feels like.

Most people you will encounter in the coming few decades of your life (should you choose to stick around that long) define their existence by this day, this rank, these marks – and will continue to do so ad nauseam. Your unenviable job for the rest of your bureaucratic career is to walk the tightrope between living among them and not becoming one of them.

#2 The bad news: a new caste system awaits you here. The good news: membership is optional.

If you thought that you have made it and life will be a bed of roses hereon, welcome to the civil services caste system. We have many castes here – the IAS and the “IAS-allied” / the “home cadre” and the “have-to-learn-a-new-language cadre” / the “Group A” and the “Group not-A”, etcetera etcetera. Notice that all of these castes are sealed for life based on the subject’s performance in a fundamentally flawed examination (s)he wrote once upon a time – and are in no way a reflection of the quality of person they were or have evolved into since.

No offence, of course.

No offence, of course.

The identity associated with these castes – higher or lower – is a self-inflicted albatross most babus wear around their necks to their retirement. Some, to their grave. These are the often the ones that will demand your respect.

At the same time, you will come across some amazing people who have shunned the caste system altogether. You can recognize them as the ones that command your respect based on who they are, and not the office they occupy.

Who you wish to be is up to you.

#3 Never forget who you were before this day.

Just because you do, it will not mean that the world around you will ignore the caste system too. All your life, you will come across those who will either put you on a pedestal, or try to bring your spirits down because of your service, or your posting, or your cadre, or some other irrelevant tripe linked irrevocably to these marks you scored in UPSC all those decades ago.

Existential crisis could be a common occupational hazard

Existential crisis is likely to be a constant occupational hazard.

Develop a thick skin. Tune these voices out. Cherish your old friendships, stay in touch with the world you are coming from. Your roots will keep you sane.

#4 You cannot change the world single-handedly. But always be on the prowl for the small differences you can make.

It is easy to get frustrated if you seek to cure cancer on Day 1. Here is a reality check for the fellow romantics. This is just another job. Many out there are contributing more to the task of nation building than you are. And there are many problems here that you can do absolutely nothing about.

My advice – focus on what you can do. No task is too little. The beauty of being here is that small steps for a babu can often mean big leaps for the system. For instance, I am crazy about technology and paperlessness. I may not have cured cancer yet, but the few trees I have managed to save so far give me a decent night’s sleep.

Celebrate Small Victories

Celebrate small victories

This also makes it extremely important to have interests beyond this job. After office hours, I shell out bullet-pointed satire and advice no one asked me for. And I suggest you find something crazy to do too. This is going to be a long journey and you’ll need something to keep the seasickness at bay.

#5 This is just another job. You are not God. Stay humble.

At the very least, be nice to the little people

At the very least, be nice to the little people.

Among the many things we inherited from the British is the maibaap culture. When everyone around you treats you like a demi-God, staying grounded becomes a challenge. Never forget that you are here to serve the public and not the other way round.

I once met a senior officer who took this spirit to the next level. The nameplate outside her office read “Smt XYZ, Public Servant” instead of a heavyweight designation most bureaucrats derive such smug satisfaction from. She said the gesture earned her flak from her colleagues for “denigrating the stature” of her office.

And that is the sort of appreciation you can expect for your humility too.

Oh, I almost forgot. Congratulations on your grand success.