Open defecation isn’t the stuff of Bollywood dreams, but that hasn’t stopped director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra from taking a robust jab at it.
The ‘Rang De Basanti’ director raises a stink over sanitation by spinning a tale around an adorable eight-year-old boy Kannu’s (Om Kanojiya) quest to provide a toilet for his single mother Sargam (Anjali Patil). They live in Gandhi Nagar — a shanty settlement in the illegally occupied Mumbai slums — where relieving themselves in the open at dawn with a plastic bucket in hand is their grim reality. While the women usually move in packs for safety, Sargam is raped when she ventures out on her own at dawn to do her morning business.
Without being graphic, Mehra does a neat job of driving home the brutality behind sexual violence. It’s chilling to see a vulnerable Sargam being violated in the open by a law enforcement officer as his junior watches them mutely. We don’t see the heinous act, but we feel her helplessness, shame and fury.
Mehra exercises remarkable restraint here, but he lets go when it comes to highlighting the issue of open defecation.
The first half is studded with scenes where dozens of women and children are seen flushing their bodily wastes out. A scene in which the small boy builds his own makeshift toilet, but then falls into the manhole filled with poop during a sudden downpour was stomach-churning.
It’s decidedly unpleasant and makes you shift uncomfortably in your seats. Perhaps, that was Mehra’s intention — to yank you out of your pleasant life and acquaint you with how the have-nots in Mumbai slums survive. But that part of the crusade wasn’t particularly compelling.
What excited me was the sturdy mother-son relationship between Kannu and Sargam. Their warmth and camaraderie — despite not being flushed with money — makes you smile.
The tenuous romantic relationship between the luminescent talent Sargam and Pappu, played wonderfully by Neteesh Wadhwa, is endearing to watch. It was also refreshing to see a rape survivor dealing with a violent episode in her life. Patil shows the agony and her resilience at limping back to normalcy with impressive sensitivity. The kinship among Kannu and his firebrand friends like Mangla (Syna Anand), Ringtone (Adarsh Bharti) and Nirala (Prasad Sawant) feels organic too. Their obsessive banter about toilets into their hood is bittersweet.
However, the pace of the film is fractured and all the elements don’t find a rousing conclusion. The part where Kannu — played sensitively Kanojiya — manages to cut through red tape and reach high up the political food-chain is borderline dubious and simplistic. You never fully buy into how a young boy manages to spread sanitation cheer in his community.
While Mehra and his crew are earnest in their efforts in dropping a load on a grim issue of sanitation and dignity plaguing India, it doesn’t always land. But it’s a good start.
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‘Mere Pyare Prime Minister’
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Cast: Om Kanojiya, Anjali Patil, Neteesh Wadhwa, Adarsh Bharti, Prasad Sawant and Syna Anand
Stars: 2 out of 5