Indian films turn the spotlight on taboo issues

Bhumi Pednekar and Akshay Kumar star in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a film about one man's battle to build toilets in his village.
Bhumi Pednekar and Akshay Kumar star in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a film about one man's battle to build toilets in his village.PHOTO: VIACOM 18 MOTION PICTURES

MUMBAI • Indian movie makers are no longer dancing about the bush over controversial issues.

Virile male heroes have long been a feature of Bollywood films, but a new movie that hit screens over the weekend tackles a rarely talked about matter in patriarchal India - erectile dysfunction.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is the latest Hindi-language movie to centre on serious health subjects not normally associated with the glamour of the industry's flashy song and dance routines.

A film released last month spotlighted India's chronic lack of toilets while an upcoming movie tells the story of a man who invents a machine that produces cheap sanitary towels.

Analysts said they are part of a trend making male protagonists appear more human, in contrast to older Bollywood films where it was common for ultra-macho men to punch rivals through brick walls during elaborate fight scenes.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan's director R.S. Prasanna said he wanted to use the taboo subject of impotence to tackle wider issues of patriarchy and conservative values that dominate Indian society.

"I was interested in making a wedding film in which the love story happens in an arranged marriage," he added.

"Then I began to explore the idea that if a conservative couple in an arranged match starts getting naughty with each other before marriage, what would happen if he couldn't get it up in the bedroom?"

"Erectile dysfunction became a starting point for larger issues," he noted.

Shubh Mangal Saavdhan is the story of a couple who find love despite being in an arranged marriage. It stars Ayushmann Khurrana as a young man who suffers from performance anxiety in the bedroom. The movie is a remake of the 2013 Tamil-language comedy Kalyana Samayal Sadham, which was also directed by Prasanna.

He drew inspiration for the latest work after he spent a short time as a stay-at-home husband.

"Many women in my neighbourhood looked down upon me because my wife was working and I was making dinner for her.

"Those women were content with their patriarchal husbands," Prasanna said.

"In my film, I have replaced financial impotence with sexual impotence... Being a man is not about (performing) in bed but standing up for an issue or standing up for your woman," he added.

Although the story discusses a taboo subject in largely conservative India, the film censor board cleared it with a parental guidance certificate without any cuts.

"There is a thin line between naughty and vulgar, between creepy and sincere, and we have not crossed that.

"I am glad that today's films on constipation, erectile dysfunction and toilets can be commercially viable and entertaining," Prasanna said.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, released last month, tells the story of one man's battle to build toilets in his village in rural India.

The 2015 hit Piku dealt with a man's struggles with constipation while Padman, due out next year, is based on the true story of an entrepreneur who transformed hygiene for poor women in India with his low-cost sanitary pad dispenser.

Bollywood analyst Akshaye Rathi said: "There is a huge transition going on in Indian society and film- makers are reflecting this by talking about issues that used to be considered taboo.

"Humanisation of male protagonists is also happening with these movies as well. We can expect more such films in the future," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Indian films turn the spotlight on taboo issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe