The only-in-India subcategory of cinema dedicated to easy access to toilets gets a new entry in the form of Mere Pyare Prime Minister. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s movie follows in the heels of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Halkaa (2018), and resembles the latter production most closely in its exploration of a child from a slum who dreams of building a toilet for his mother.
The sluggishly paced and choppily narrated film barely develops the trailer: Kahnu (Om Kanojiya) writes a letter to the prime minister after his mother Sargam (Anjali Patil) is raped while on her way to using an open-air facility in a slum in Mumbai. Kahnu and his friends trek to Delhi, where they manage to get his hand-written letter across to the most powerful person in India with the help of a friendly government official (Atul Kulkarni).
Mehra, who has also co-written the screenplay with Manoj Mairta and Hussain Dalal, tries to fatten a slim storyline by including other problems that plague the slum residents. Kanhu and his friends should be in school rather than peddling drugs and toys at traffic signals. Sargam is an unwed mother. Could she have contracted a sexually transmitted disease after the rape? Mumbai is as unequal as it is rich, with its high-rises mocking the sprawl of slums where people struggle for even the basics. The 103-minute movie, however, loses direction as it navigates its way through its good intentions and delays an outcome that is predicted from the first frame of the button-cute kids running around the slum.
Films about the scourge of open defecation face the challenge of tackling subject matter that makes for queasy viewing. How do you sell popcorn and cola while the screen is plastered with visuals of characters squatting on their haunches in the open? In another context, Shoojit Sircar made Piku (2015), a whole film around restricted bowel movements, without once putting off viewers. Not so with the toilet tales, which, in their enthusiasm to prove that they are not going to shirk from the horrors of their existence, have gone to great lengths to show us how it is done.
So it is with Mere Pyare Prime Minister, which has the by-now mandatory moments of humans of all ages forced into public humiliation by an uncaring municipality and local government. Kanhu should, perhaps, have addressed his letter to the most powerful local administrator, but Mere Pyare Chief Minister or Mere Pyare Municipal Commissioner doesn’t quite have the same ring.
The Delhi sojourn also takes the movie out of the unremitting squalor that characterises Mumbai, and it can only be described as a relief. There are only so many references to bowel movements and conversations about a necessary part of human existence that viewers can take.
Are we being facetious? Perhaps. The toilet-themed movie is a response to the gross denial of a basic human right. Documentaries have been made on the subject, and fiction handlers have joined in to highlight what can only be described as a social evil. And yet, the solutions presented in such films are so simplistic and easily achieved that we are back to where we started: clutching a plastic pail of water and shuffling to the nearest open patch, hoping that nobody walks by, including a filmmaker on the prowl. The popcorn has gone cold and the cola flat, and the only way to escape such movies is to actually build toilets in the real world.