How production designers tackled the ickiest bits in ‘Toilet Ek Prem Katha’, ‘Delhi Belly’

Among the tricks to presenting toilets and human refuse on the screen: thermocol and vegetable gravy.

The latest Bollywood hit revolves around an aspect of life that is rarely discussed in the movies, and with good reason.

The disposal of human waste, digestive processes and bathrooms have largely been the subject of embarrassed humour. Designing a toilet for the movies or, when the occasion demands it, faecal matter, poses a tremendous challenge for production designers.

In Shree Narayan Singh’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) leaves her husband Keshav (Akshay Kumar) because his house doesn’t have an attached toilet. Keshav eventually builds a lavatory at his house, to which his orthodox father strenuously objects.

The lavatory was a real one, production designer Udai Prakash Singh said. “We looked at the location and then started the design,” Singh told “Apart from the film, the song Toilet Ka Jugaad too had the toilet. We kept building and modifying the toilet and eventually it suited the storyline. Since I am from a village, I have witnessed the kind of toilets there, so the designing became easier.”

Keshav’s father breaks down the toilet since he cannot accept its presence in his courtyard. “As a result, we did not use much cement during its construction as we wanted it to be breakable,” Singh said. “We made the set first and it was broken during the shooting. Later, we had to remodel it and then shoot it again.”

Toilet Ka Jugaad.

Toilet humour has been mostly aural – the bubbling sound of an upset stomach in Andaz Apna Apna (1994), for instance – or suggested, as in Piku (2015). Few Indian production designers have been called upon to compete with “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” from Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). The filthy bowl into which Renton (Ewan McGregor) dives to retrieve his opium suppositories has been unmatched in the movies, except by Boyle himself in Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Jamal is relieving himself at a makeshift toilet above a hole in the ground when he hears that Amitabh Bachchan is visiting his slum. Jamal gets locked into the toilet, and there is only one way for the boy to get out. He dives deep into a pool of excreta in his enthusiasm to meet his idol. The yellow matter was made out of peanut butter and chocolate. “Our little boy couldn’t wait to dip himself in and lick it all off,” the movie’s co-director and casting director, Loveleen Tandan, said in an interview.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Image credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The only Indian production that comes remotely close to Slumdog Millionaire is Abhinay Deo’s dark comedy Delhi Belly (2011) – the title itself refers to the term for diarrhoea. Human refuse is key to the plot, just as bathrooms are important locations.

“The term Delhi Belly was chosen keeping in mind the theme of the film,” said Shashank Tere, the film’s production designer. “When we started discussing about how to approach the idea, the look and feel of the project fell into place. So we started looking at the lifestyle of these characters and how filthy they were, based on which the toilet was also constructed. The toilet became a character in the film, a huge part in the film’s narrative. It is not just another toilet.”

A stool sample gets swapped for a consignment of high-value diamonds, while the ancient toilet with an unreliable flush plays its own part in the plot.

Delhi Belly (2011)|Image credit: Aamir Khan Productions.
Delhi Belly (2011)|Image credit: Aamir Khan Productions.

“The whole building was a set,” Tere said. “When we started designing, the toilet was a part of that filthy apartment space in which the three men live. So once we started designing the space, the outline of the toilet automatically came about. The designing included the selection of colour schemes and, of course, the model of the toilet.” (European, in this case.)

In the movie’s showcase scene, Vijay Raaz excitedly opens what he thinks is a parcel of diamonds, only to find a stinking replacement. “We used a lot of materials for the tatti scene,” Tere said. “It was vegetable gravy and dough. There were discussions on how much viscosity and liquidity should be there in the gravy to make it look real. We also did some research to give us a base. It was designed based on what looks good on the camera as well.”

Another film to feature toilets in a major way is Tamil director Raju Murugan’s national award winning Joker (2016). Mannar Mannan (Guru Somasundaram) declares himself as the President of India and is dismissed as a crank by his village. His backstory reveals that his wife died of a freak accident involving an incomplete toilet. The film features toilets in three stages: unfixed, half-built and broken.

Mannar Mannan’s toilet in Joker. Image credit: Dream Warrior Pictures.
Mannar Mannan’s toilet in Joker. Image credit: Dream Warrior Pictures.

Joker was shot entirely in Dharmapuri, and the sets for the toilets were constructed there too. “When we were doing research, we found out that in many villages, there were either no toilets or there were half constructed ones, like in the movie,” Satees Kumar, the film’s production designer, told “We didn’t want people to know that they were sets. Once the audience identifies that the toilets are sets, it will take them out of the experience. Even the public toilet shown in the film is a set that was constructed in an unused space.”

The production design team worked hard to make the sets look real. “We constructed the toilets out of plywood and thermocol,” Kumar said. “But the basin is a real one. In a significant scene in which the toilet topples on the actress, it is made out of thermocol and plaster of Paris. Since I am part of a village near Dharmapuri, it was easy for me to design the toilets because I have seen these incidents happen in my neighbourhood.”

How much is enough when it comes to dealing with a delicate and potentially off-putting subject on the screen? “It is a very thin line,” Tere explained. “You want people to be a little grossed out by it, but at the same time you don’t want them to be put off by the scene so much that they do not want to continue watching the film. A toilet is a very personal thing. It is a space where human beings even speak to themselves. In a way, it is a very private thing. So we had to keep all of this in mind.”

Delhi Belly (2011)|Image credit: Aamir Khan Productions.
Delhi Belly (2011)|Image credit: Aamir Khan Productions.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.