For India, Toilets Are a (Mostly) Serious Issue

The lack of facilities is not just a matter of public health, as the movie makes clear, but also touches on issues of safety, women’s rights and human dignity.

Inspired by a true story, “Toilet” is loosely based on the experiences of a poor woman in central India, Anita Narre, who six years ago found herself in an arranged marriage to a field hand. Only after the wedding did she learn her new house had no toilet.

She refused to come back until her husband built her one. He does, and she returns. “Our love has grown since,” she said.

“Toilet,” which was released this month across more than 3,000 screens in India and at dozens of theaters internationally, seems to have struck a chord, even among India’s urban dwellers.

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Children defecating outdoors in Varanasi in 2014. Nearly half the population still relieve themselves in the open, spreading disease and causing other health problems.

Credit
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

“I totally identify with the issue,” said Nishua, a 16-year-old high school student who goes by one name. She had just stepped out of a theater in New Delhi on a recent muggy afternoon.

When she was a child, Nishua recalled, her grandmother’s house had no toilet.

“For this one reason I wouldn’t want to visit her,” Nishua said. “I just didn’t look forward to visiting my grandmother for fear of being herded out in the fields to defecate.”

According to Unicef, around 564 million Indians, nearly half the population, still defecate in the open — in fields, forests, next to ponds, along highway medians and on the beach.

That spreads diseases and causes other public and personal problems.

It is no accident that “Toilet” opens with a beautifully lit scene of women trudging out of their village right before sunrise, each one carrying a little brass jug of water to wash with. They are traveling in a group for safety.

Rural women sometimes endure taunts and even sexual assault when they relieve themselves outdoors, so they travel in small groups, often before dawn, for protection.

“This is a real problem,” said Jagmati Sangwan, a women’s rights advocate. “So many women, especially landless women, face a lot of violence when they go to the bathroom outside.”

To avoid being leered at during the day, some women hold on for hours for darkness to fall….

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