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 Scroll.in. “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 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.
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.
“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.
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 Scroll.in. “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.”