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Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra: “You Can Forgo A Temple Visit Or A Meal In A Day – But Not The Toilet’

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Be it Akshay Kumar’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha or his own directorial Mere Pyaare Prime Minister, films that showcase the need to eradicate open defecation are “timely,” says National Award-winning filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, in an interview with IANS. He feels the nation needs to build more toilets than mosques and temples.

“I really don’t know what these films will do, but they are very timely,” Mehra said over the phone from Mumbai.

He has a point.

According to UNICEF India, the country has the largest number of people – over 564 million – still defecating in the open. Also, about 65 percent of people in rural areas in India do not have access to toilets.

While Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which released yesterday, is trying to spread the message of Swachh Bharat by highlighting the importance of making toilets in an entertaining way, Mere Pyaare Prime Minister – with its intriguing title – will tell the story of a slum boy who wants to build a toilet for his mother.

Mehra said these stories go beyond the subject of toilets.

“The stories are not about toilets. Stories are about human beings. So, I hope that as a human story, Mere Pyaare… can reach out and touch hearts, and move you in a way which is very positive.

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And thereby, the story becomes a part of a collective consciousness, rather than what just might concern a selective consciousness.

“I hope it becomes not just a talking point, but an awareness. Once there’s an awareness, something can be done about it.”

He said that somewhere, “the voice of the film even tells you that more than making mosques and temples, it’s important to make toilets”.

Asked why, Mehra says, “I am not defying a belief. I don’t believe in mosques and temples. I do believe they are essential to a society and people find their peace of mind and spiritual connect. But I also feel that the focus of the nation cannot be kept on that.

“It needs to shift now towards giving social security, social benefits to the people of this country. Just making their lives happier.”

He further said, “What I am trying to say is that you can go without going to the mosque or temple for a day or even go without a meal. But you can’t just go without going to the toilet everyday. I am saying it in a practical way, and not saying it in a frivolous way or like a joke.

“It’s a simple biological fact of life.”

Mehra, who also directed Rang De Basanti and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, also associated with the Yuva Unstoppable NGO, which works on building toilets in municipal schools across India.

Raised in Delhi, Mehra has been living in Mumbai for almost three decades now. It was the “contrast between the haves and have-nots” in the country’s financial capital that irked him enough to make a movie around it.

The result was Mere Pyaare Prime Minister.

Largely shot with four children, extras from slums, and National Award-winning actress Anjali Patil, Mehra took his cameras to Mumbai suburbs Amrut Nagar and Passpoli to capture real life scenes and locations where people defecate in the open.

He says, “When you take a flight to Mumbai, your plane feels like it will land on slums – and suddenly there’s a runway.

“When I shifted to Mumbai around 30 years ago, there was one slum called Dharavi – the biggest in Asia and all of that. And now when I look around, there are a hundred Dharavis around us. There are more slums than buildings. So, I always wondered what life is like there.”

In the quest to find that, he realised that “against all odds, there’s an immense celebration there”.

“Despite all the problems, people don’t give up hope. That hope inspired me to get into this film. I wanted to tell a story of inspiration.”

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