The activist in Bhumi Pednekar was nudged awake as she played the feisty Jaya in her new Bollywood drama, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.
She describes her role as a rebel with a worthy cause.
What’s that cause, you ask?
Build toilets and end open defecation in fields at her husband’s home in Uttar Pradesh.
“This film is meant to empower women… Jaya inspired me in so many ways. She has got a strong voice. She’s aware of her rights, which a lot of women aren’t… She’s educated and a feisty little thing. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t believe in Indian culture,” said Pednekar in a chat with Gulf News tabloid!.
The trailer, featuring superstar Akshay Kumar as her husband, shows the newly-wed Jaya kicking up a storm over poor sanitation and personal hygiene in her in-laws’ home.
“But the film is not meant to be preachy. Films are a medium with a huge reach and this story is told in way that a three-year-old and an 80-year-old can understand the important issue we are trying to portray. I promise you that this is one of the greatest romances that you will ever see. The story-telling is breezy and light,” said Pednekar.
While the subject of improper sanitation and bowel movements may come across as distasteful, the actress was drawn to the role due to its social relevance.
“A film like this happening in Bollywood is so rare. I knew that if I am in it, then it’s a great honour for me,” said Pednekar. Bollywood is known for its syrupy romances filled with songs, humour and melodrama.
Pednekar made a splash with the unconventional romance Dum Laga Ke Haisha, where she starred as an overweight woman in an arranged marriage. She endeared many because she didn’t shy away from taking on an unglamorous role in her first film.
“That character was so empowering and it broke a lot of stereotypes because it was an issue that resonated with a lot people across India and the world. I feel so thankful when roles that excite me come my way,” said Pednekar.
In her first film, she was matching strides with Ayushmann Khurrana, but the stake is bigger in her new drama. She shares the spotlight with Kumar, an actor who is a certified superstar with Indian National Awards and a string of blockbusters.
“The beauty of Akshay sir is that he is humble. He’s really kind and I have never seen him misbehave or lose his calm. He’s inspiring in so many ways,” she said.
Pednekar, who began her career as a casting professional, believes that her film will trigger dialogues about sanitation issues. The existing Indian government even launched a clean India campaign along these lines. But it isn’t a propaganda film, insists the makers.
“The film is a lot bigger than the tale of privileged people who have access to a bathroom. Did you know, every day people sit in the open and defecate and the problem is not just the lack of infrastructure. It’s that mindset where they think it is impure to have toilets at home where they cook and pray,” said Pednekar.
The film takes a swipe at the hypocrisy that exists in society.
“Imagine there are women who wake up and walk four kilometres away from home to defecate. It is a threat to their health, but also their safety. Why should you gamble with your life every day to do an act that is as natural as breathing. Rapes happen when they go to defecate in the open because they are easy targets and are vulnerable… It’s disgusting,” Pednekar said.
She hopes to change the society, one good film at a time.
“That mindset has to be changed and people should realise that it’s just wrong,” said Pednekar.
Don’t miss it!
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is out in the UAE cinemas this Thursday.