India’s shiniest film sector seems to be developing a sub-genre of films about toilets and open defecation. Although bowel movement has been the subject of sight gags and crude humour in the movies, the Akshay Kumar-starrer Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) chose to focus on the horrific reality of the lakhs of Indians who have to relieve themselves in the open. Nila Madhab Panda’s Halkaa, which will be followed by Rakeysh Mehra’s Mere Pyare Prime Minister, tackles this uncomfortable Indian truth with empathy, earnestness and simplicity.
In Halkaa, a cloud of pixie dust hangs over the dirt-poor Delhi slum where a young ragpicker dreams of the day when he will no longer have to drop his pants in public. Humans have evolved considerably since their simian origins except in one regard, decides the preternaturally wise Pichku (Tathasthu).
Pichku is too old to do his business at home, as his overstretched rickshaw-pulling father Ramesh (Ranvir Shorey) reminds him every day. The central government’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme should be the answer to Pichku’s woes, but his father would rather divert the money allotted to the construction of facilities for more pressing needs. A corrupt government official is no help either, forcing Pichku and his friend Gopi (Aryan Preet) to think on their feet. With some help from his mother, Shobha (Paoli Dam), Pichku teams up with Gopi and a traditional healer (Kumud Mishra) to raise the funds to build a toilet.
Every actor in the film deserves a medal for participating in the project. Apart from the cherubic young leads, who offset their lack of experience with their irresistible enthusiasm, Ranvir Shorey needs an extra pat on the back for his rigour. Whether squatting by the side of the railway tracks or plying a rickshaw, Shorey’s Ramesh never misses a beat.
The movie works best in the middle section, even though this bit is firmly in fairy-tale mode. Friendships with affluent students (belonging to the school run by the movie’s producer, entrepreneur Shiv Nadar) and a friendly employee at a toilet accessories store turn up some of the film’s warmest scenes.
Halkaa’s good intentions are never in doubt, nor are the efforts of the filmmaking team in illuminating a dark reality of Indian cities. But far greater subtlety, and a more realistic assessment of the problems faced by slum dwellers in building toilets, were needed to have made Pichku’s mission credible.
The story, screenplay and dialogue, by Nitin Dixit, go to great lengths to elaborate on the problem at hand. Nearly every sequence in the 114-minute movie revolves around the dream latrine. There is no respite for viewers who could be impressed by the degree of realism on display but could get equally uncomfortable with the queasiness that results from watching Pichku clutch his half-pants and scrunch up his face in agony.
It isn’t just Ramesh who is denying Pichku the dignity and privacy he craves. In an avoidable example of the movie’s ambition to hammer home its point and push its actors to their limits, Ramesh forces Pichku to squat by the railway tracks and then lines up a bunch of spectators.
The sequence never seems to end. Pichku can’t perform. “Build pressure,” one man yells to Pichku and, it appears, to viewers trying to banish any accompanying visuals from their minds. This social drama demands an open mind, and a strong stomach.