Thank you, Raju Murugan, for giving us a heroine who is human and needs to use the toilet.
Put like that, it might sound like a frivolous statement. After all, “Joker” isn’t just about the toilet that Malliga (Ramya Pandian) wants built in her marital home. It’s a sharply critical commentary on the failure of the government to provide basic needs to large sections of the population and the apathy with which the citizenry puts up with it.
But it is Malliga’s desire to have a toilet in her own home that forms the nucleus of the film – it’s from this ambition that her husband’s activism explodes. The urban crowd with whom I watched the film in the theatre initially burst into laughter when Malliga tells Mannar Mannan (Guru Somasundaram) her lone condition for marrying him.
But soon, the laughter died down as the reality of the situation hit home. It’s not as if the Malligas of the world are a figment of imagination. Earlier this year, a bride in Kanpur called off her wedding because the groom did not have a toilet in his house. He’d promised to construct one but did not do so in time for the wedding. She chose, instead, to marry another man who already had a toilet at home.
As this Indian Express report puts it, there are numerous difficulties that women face when it comes to sanitation facilities in the country. Either there are no toilets at all where they live or there are so few public toilets that the space tends to be extremely unclean (thereby exposing them to infections) or crowded. The women are pushed to defecate in the open rather than wait for long hours in the queue.
There is a direct correlation between girl students dropping out of school, especially after puberty, and the lack of toilet facilities in educational institutions. And then there are the horror stories of sexual violence that women are subjected to when they seek out lonely places that will offer them a semblance of privacy to perform a basic biological need.
As with most issues that are particular to women, the toilet problem has rarely found its way to film. There are plenty of movies where we’ve seen the hero pee on the road or use the men’s toilet. We've even had films show streams of urine when it's a man who is peeing. These scenes are casually constructed, without anyone raising questions about “vulgarity” or disgust.
There are comedy tracks and action sequences that are located in the men’s toilet. But the ladies? Nope. Unless they’ve run into the toilet to hide from a villain, the heroines never seem to have the biological need to go.
It’s not that we’ve ONLY had films where heroines live in mansions with fancy bathtubs - at one point, the bathroom scene with the heroine covered in lather, was the zenith of titillation - we’ve had plenty of Tamil films set in rural areas that have shown the heroine going to the river to take a bath. Waterfalls, too.
But if she didn’t have a bathroom in her house, where did she pee or poop? We were never told and neither did we ask because it seems to be a mildly indecent question to ask about a lady, especially one who is shown to us as an object of desire.
The “chivalry”, however, appears laughable when confronted with women’s realities.
I recall very few films where a heroine’s biological need to use the toilet has ever been represented. The Marathi film “Sairat” had Archie discovering that life after elopement is not so easy when she has to use the public toilet in a slum. At first, she cannot bring herself to use the smelly, unhygienic place, but when she’s out of options, she somehow accomplishes the task.
In the first half of "NH10", Meera (Anushka Sharma) uses a toilet and wipes away the "randi" graffiti she sees there with determination. The act is a portent of what's to come.
In “Arangetra Velai”, the Tamil remake of the Malayalam super-hit, “Ramji Rao Speaking”, the two tenants, a spirited Asha (Revathi) and Sivaraman (Prabhu) fight over who gets to use the common toilet first in the morning.
Mostly though, this is not an aspect that we’re willing to show in association with the heroine. It turns off the audience. The smooth-skinned, glowing, hairless woman is elevated to the level of an apsara; she is not a mortal woman with mortal needs.
The hero’s toilet humour, on the other hand, is entertaining because his primary role is not to titillate – he is not an object and he’s permitted to have his human urges. From peeing to masturbating, all kinds of representations are acceptable.
In “Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle”, the American adult comedy, there is an epic scene popularly called “the battleshits” that has two women competing with each other on who can make the louder noise while defecating. The scene achieved its notoriety because women are barely shown in such sequences – using the ladies’ room simply means you need to powder your nose, not empty your bowels.
Portrayals of heroines as human beings are so rare that Malliga and her toilet "fixation" didn’t make me hold my breath; she took my breath away.
“Joker” has won critical acclaim and is enjoying a good run at the box office. Its success goes to show that you don’t always need a big star-cast or a populist theme for a film to do well. Sometimes, all you need is content. Minus the gas.