Interview Hindi

Writers Siddharth-Garima: Reach of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is more important than the box office


The screenplay, dialogue and lyric writers of Akshay Kumar’s upcoming film talk about how they developed the story and what they hope audiences will take away from it.

Sonal Pandya

Editor-director Shree Narayan Singh’s film, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, deals with a pressing problem that afflicts much of India — the lack of toilets for its growing population. Akshay Kumar plays Keshav, who is eager to get married. But when he brings his bride Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) home, she finds that the house does not have a toilet.

The satirical comedy takes on the challenges women face when they have to go outdoors to answer the call of nature as there is no toilet at home. The film’s protagonist also takes up the fight to equip homes with toilets and bring his wife back.

In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, the writers of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Siddharth Singh and Garima Wahal, discussed how they came up with the idea for the film and shaped the dialogue and spoke of their primary aim of making a difference with the subject. Edited excerpts follow.

Writers Garima Wahal and Siddharth Singh

What was the real-life inspiration behind Toilet: Ek Prem Katha? Did you both come up with the story or were you asked to develop it?

Garima Wahal: We came up with the story. It was a small newspaper article that we spotted, way back in 2012, which inspired us to make a whole story around it. The one fact was that brides were running away, there were several incidents in Uttar Pradesh wherein the brides [left] their marital homes for lack of a toilet. We gave this story a twist and developed a concept which we took to Neeraj Pandey and team and they liked it. They said we should go with this and then, from that point on, with the research and everything, it took us about two years to develop the script.

Siddharth Singh: The important thing here that I would like to mention is that [this] was much before Narendra Modi became prime minister. Later, the makers decided to tie up with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and take it forward, but it was developed and ready much before that.

How did you lay out the story drawing parallels from real-life events? What was your process and research?

SS: The advantage of doing a fictional story is that you can take it in any direction, but since it is based on a real-life situation, there are [only] so many ways or directions you can take it in. But it’s a challenge, that as a writer also you might hit a roadblock.

GW: Even with our fictional story, what we try doing typically as our process is that we do a lot of research, so that whatever we are depicting, the world we are committing to, should look authentic. It should not be like we are talking [about] something else. As far as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha goes, we had done our research in Mathura and all these areas. We had gone to do a tour sort of a thing towards Jhansi and Uttar Pradesh. We had opposite locations which is Mathura, Nandgaon, where [the film was shot]. It was most authentic there. We got all the details and that’s what we incorporated [in the script]. It was difficult for them to believe that these things exist, mobile phones hai, baaki ghar hai [the whole house is there], and there are no toilets. We had to convince them that no, there is a world like this in our country.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha trailer — Satirical love story clogged by absence of a toilet

Since this is the reality in India, did you feel an added sense of responsibility to bring out these truths in your story?

SS: The idea is only such. It is not made purely for entertainment. Of course, entertainment is the key way to communicate the message, but yes, we want to make a difference to society. It’s the main motive of making such a film. Otherwise we could have any fictional story around. But sanitation being a problem in India — 54% of the country, they defecate in the open — so, yes, it added a sense of responsibility. But having said that, that’s the reason why we did so much research and we wanted to make every part of the aspect we use in the story foolproof.

GW: We feel it’s a great opportunity for us storytellers, if we come across an idea like this, to make a difference. You don’t get to do it with every film, but yes, there’s that one film that will come your way. We hope to do more stories where you end up making a difference.

SS: As they say, we are a reflection of society. The films that we make are a reflection of society. This problem already exists for the past 60 years since Independence, but nobody tried putting it into a film. [Hopefully] we’ll make some impact with it.

In an interview you had talked about balancing the realism and cinema in today's dialogues? How have you achieved that in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha?

SS: Like you would have seen in the trailer, the lines that we tried using are a little larger-than-life. Though it is colloquial, the impact is larger-than-life. That’s the balance we have tried to achieve because that’s [what] we feel. A lot of people say, ‘Line, line jaisi nahin lagni chahiye [A dialogue should not feel like a dialogue]’. I think it has taken the fun out of the dialogue.

GW: For us writers, the first audience is the producers, the director, and the actors, of course. For us, it’s very important that they should connect to the lines and the dialogues that we are writing. Luckily, that went off smoothly in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, because from the word go, our dialogues were appreciated and they totally connected. Akshay sir [Akshay Kumar], Divyendu Sharma, Bhumi Pednekar, they all wanted to take it to the next level. That is great for a writer.

SS: We could have written something like ‘Agar biwi ko paas mein rakhna hai, toh ghar mein toilet hona chahiye’ but we chose to write ‘Biwi paas chahiye, toh ghar mein sundas chahiye’. So that people can repeat it and they take it as a motto maybe and it is said by Akshay Kumar so that is the reason why when you say a line like that, it makes an impact, is what we feel.

The recently released trailer shows a mix of humour thrown into a tale of social awareness.

GW: The approach is completely humour. Even we would not listen if today someone starts preaching about the problem. The government has been putting in efforts, if you see all the campaigns they are trying to run about open defecation, they are mostly humour-oriented, but it’s also predictable, so that’s something we wanted to steer clear of and, hopefully, we have achieved that in the film.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

SS: What we feel they should understand is that this is not only a problem that is in the villages. It is problem that we, as city people, also feel, when you go from Colaba to Borivali on the Western Express Highway, you will not find a single toilet. We just want to bring this topic on the discussion table — ke yeh hai [this is it]. Aap isse bach nahin sakte ho [You can’t hide from it]. You can’t close your eyes and say this is not my problem, this is in the villages. That is the thing you want to bring [forward] and as far as the impact in the villages is concerned, we want to bring to their notice that you need to have a toilet because it is hygienic to have a toilet. That is what we want. And of course, box office does matter, but for this film, the maximum number of people watching it, the reach, is more important than the box office.

GW: This has not been written about, [but] somebody watched the trailer and got a toilet constructed. What if there is that one conversion somewhere? While we were shooting the film, there were women coming over and thanking us, ‘God bless you for doing this! No one really understands that this is a problem for us.’ So that feels like yes, you really are making a difference and you know that is the message going out and mostly to the menfolk, because they are the decision makers, they are the ones who spend the money.

SS: In this age, feminism has become only about eve-teasing and they don’t get into the root, is what we feel. Women should stand up for their own, that is feminism. It’s not like that somebody is helping them out and [women] should roam around with pepper spray. That is not the solution. That won’t solve it. That is only a precautionary measure.

GW: The solution would be raising an issue and sticking by it. That’s what our protagonist does in the film. That’s the whole point.

What's next for you after this? Are you working on something now?

GW: There is a war film that we are writing. There are several subjects that we tried dabbling with. There is a period film we are writing.

You are working across different genres.

SS: Yes, otherwise you get typecast in Bollywood. Tum toh romantic filmein likhte ho [You guys only write romantic films]. We don’t want to do that.

GW: We enjoy doing what we do, so why should we limit ourselves and do that kind of monotonous work. We live with every story for at least three years when we are writing it.

At a recent roundtable, several top female singers talked about the lack of female songs and even an equal voice in a duet. As lyricists, is it important for you to write about the female perspective in your songs?

SS: We have written lyrics for Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), the biggest song in the album was a female-driven song, which was ‘Nagada Sang Dhol’. All the three female-driven songs in Bajirao Mastani (2015), the song ‘Pinga’ was big for both Priyanka [Chopra] and Deepika [Padukone]. Then ‘Deewani Mastani’ was on Deepika. So we feel yes, there is a lack, but only Sanjay sir [Sanjay Leela Bhansali] knows there is a lack of female-driven songs.

GW: For us writers, we write on situations. We talk about the song being a part of the screenplay, if the screenplay holds that much importance to the protagonist, why won’t there be a song which is by female singers? That is the thing. We totally feel that there should be more.