India’s glitzy Bollywood movies and toilets have little in common, but they came together in a recent film that turns the spotlight on one of the most unglamorous challenges the country is tackling — open defecation.

Starring a top hero, Akshay Kumar, Toilet, a Love Story is the tale of a bicycle shop owner’s struggle to build a toilet for his wife, who abandons him because she refuses to go into the fields like other women in the village.

It is inspired by the true story of a woman in central India who walked out on her husband because there was no toilet in the house.

The theme has resonance in a country where half the 1.3 billion people defecate in the open, exposing them, particularly women and children, to diseases.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is racing to build millions of toilets to meet its pledge to end open defecation by 2019. But as it turns out, the problem is not just about access to latrines, but changing behavior in a society where many people consider this a healthy practice.

Resistance to latrines

“People associate it with Ayurveda (a traditional system of medicine and health), you get a morning walk, you get fresh air, all kinds of reasoning which they come up with,” said Nikhil Srivastav, research director at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics in New Delhi.

Campaigners point out that statistics on the latrines constructed in thousands of villages are meaningless because barely half are being used.

The widespread cultural resistance to latrine use in rural India is also born out of beliefs that pit latrines are impure and polluting, and that you cannot have a toilet under the same roof as the kitchen.

Bollywood’s influence

The film addresses some of those problems as the protagonist meets with powerful opposition when he constructs a toilet in the house because his infuriated father, an upper caste Hindu, believes it violates age-old tradition.

Can the film help by sparking a conversation around sanitation, especially in rural India? Bollywood after all is one of the country’s major influencers.

“The fact that someone is willing to put their money and make a movie about it, I say great. If it is going to trigger off 50,000 people, who started to think differently about the issue, it has value,” said V.K Madhavan, who heads WaterAid India.

The issue is emerging as an important one: Last week a woman in Rajasthan state was granted a divorce after judges ruled that her husband’s failure to build a toilet at home amounted to “physical cruelty” as she had to wait until dusk before going into the fields.

The film highlights how women, faces covered, venture into fields before sunrise under cover of darkness.

​Caste system and old habits

Another stumbling block in the campaign to popularize toilets is India’s centuries-old caste system, in which only lower castes are supposed to clean toilets. Many villagers are rejecting the basic latrines being built because the pits would have to be emptied manually once every few years, a task the aspirational lower castes are no longer willing to do and which others also shun.

“So often these latrines get taken away, broken down, used for storing cow dung cakes or other things,” Srivastav said.

A Toilet Anthem, released by filmmakers to promote the cause of sanitation, underlines the paradox of a country where vast progress in areas such as space and technology and an aspirational middle class stand in stark contrast with deeply rooted traditional beliefs across thousands of villages.

“While mankind has progressed far enough to journey to Mars and scale Mount Everest, 54 percent of India defecates in the open,” goes the anthem.

Sanitation experts however stress that the battle will have to be won softly and warn that some cases of zealous officials coercing people to use newly constructed latrines to meet India’s target of ending open defecation may be counterproductive.

“If you have to deal with [the] cultural nuances around it, deal with old habits, you need to get feet on the ground to be able to talk to people, convince them gradually over a period of time. It does not happen overnight,” Madhavan said.

Prime Minister Modi has praised the film as a “good effort to further the message of cleanliness.”

Whether it will actually have any impact remains to be seen, but campaigners are digging their heels in for a drawn-out effort.

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