Akshay Kumar-starrer Toilet: Ek Prem Katha may be the latest socially relevant film in Bollywood but Indian filmmakers have been at it for decades — Himanshu Rai’s Achhut Kanya (1936), Dahej (1950), Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954), Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976), Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini (1993), Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2003), Asutosh Gowarikar’s Swades (2004), Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006), Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par (2008), Umesh Shukla’s OMG — Oh My God (2012), Shoojit Sircar’s Pink (2016) and a host of other films have made a huge impact on our minds.
But what makes Toilet Ek Prem Katha a point of discussion is that it shows how mainstream filmmakers today are not averse to becoming a part of government campaigns and are roping in mainstream heroes to present the message too. How long it will continue, only time will tell but it’s nevertheless a good beginning.
Both pre and post Independence, filmmakers have played around with subjects pertaining to their respective times. If dowry, casteism, the ills of zamindari system, poverty reflected in the films till the ’60s, the breaking down of family system, migration to cities, societal attitude towards unwed mothers were the themes of some movies in the ’70s. Oppressed protagonist films (heroes turning dacoits/smugglers after being exploited) too tried to show how society is responsible for their condition. Lately, LGBT rights and women’s safety have attracted quite a few makers.
Actress Vidya Balan says that films are representation of what’s happening in the society. “We are addressing more and more issues and causes now because the audience and filmmakers are taking an interest in making the world a better place. Films are not just providing entrainment but also making a valid point and that’s happening because we as a community know our responsibilities towards the society,” she feels.
Actor Darshan Kumar who has worked in films like Mary Kom and Sarbjit feels that it is the responsibility of films to be relevant. “Films have a huge impact on our lives and we should use this medium to start a discussion. It’s very important for us to create awareness about issues that are bothering us,” he says.
Make it entertaining
However, it’s not enough to just make a socially relevant film. In order to take it to the audiences and make them like and ponder over it, filmmakers have to make it entertaining either through comedy (for instance Three Idiots or OMG) or intense drama (Pink or Damini). The entertainment quotient is a must, says producer Prerna Arora who has co-produced Toilet Ek Prem Katha. “Every day we read or watch news about murders, rapes or political disturbances. The whole purpose of watching a film is to forget our problems. If you present a film in a hard-hitting manner, the audience will immediately lose interest in it. We need to give out the right message but in an appealing way,” she insists.
“We as a nation are a little loud and our films therefore become loud and dramatic. But till the time we make an impact and create noise, it’s completely alright,” feels Darshan.
A critic makes an interesting observation. “Filmmakers are no more restricting themselves to subjects that highlight the loopholes in the government and system. They are showing how as a society, we need to bring the change we want in the system. They are now focusing on the society and we the people, trying to change our flawed mindsets.
Actor Sharib Hashmi, who recently starred in Phullu, which is about a boy who made low-cost sanitary napkins for women in his village, supports this view and says that we can no longer just blame the government. “We, as a society have to bring in the change within ourselves — it’s the need of the hour. We consider ourselves a progressive country based on technological advances but we are not a progressive society. Our mindsets haven’t changed. So filmmakers are using this medium to change them. The topics that are being raised are issues which have been suppressed by us for decades.”
Akshay’s next film Padman is about Tamil Nadu-based social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham who provides low cost sanitary napkins to rural women, R S Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Savdhan is a commentary on marriage institution through a guy who has erectile dysfunction, Nila Madhab Panda’s Kadvi Hawa captures the very real threat of climate change and the list goes on...