Suraj Ramnath

"We can't glamourise such stories": Titus Upputuru on his 'World Toilet Day' film

This campaign by Dentsu One is based on a real Jharkhand-based case. A look at the effort.

In rural India, there are a lot of houses without a toilet due to which people end up defecating in open fields. There are millions of women in these rural parts of India who have to undergo the psychological trauma of having to defecate in the open due to this issue.

To address the same issue, Dentsu One has conceptualised a digital campaign, Project Hers - Kushboo, that throws light on this disturbing fact by showing a painful story based on a real incident that had happened in Jharkhand. The film has been written and directed by Titus Upputuru, national creative director of Dentsu One and produced by Chrome Pictures. The digital duties for the ad film have been carried out by WebChutney. The ad was released on November 19 to promote World Toilet Day.

"We can't glamourise such stories": Titus Upputuru on his 'World Toilet Day' film
The film directs the audience to visit the website and sign a petition that will influence the government to create a new law: If you have a house, you must have a toilet. Also the film ends with the logo of Project Hers that shows the typical sign on women's loos but suddenly ends with a graphical image of committing a suicide.
"We can't glamourise such stories": Titus Upputuru on his 'World Toilet Day' film
While one makes an ad film for a brand, the objective is to sell. We asked Upputuru how did the thinking change while executing this film since this was to educate the people. He says, "We are in the business of communication and engagement. We wish to connect to audiences and share a message. So, be it brand or social message, we do it with the same passion. But yes, in this case, we had to be extra sensitive. The idea was to sensitise people about an issue that most of us do not even know about. Plus it involved death. So we had to be careful about how we were sharing this story."

Talking about the challenge, Upputuru says, "We can't glamourise these kind of stories. We have to be authentic. Of course this film is based on a true story but we were clear that we were not doing journalism. We put a lens of film making on it."

While open defecation, and the health and safety hazards it brings, is a very real problem in India, some communication experts point out that films like these tend to move an international creative jury a lot quicker than regular brand films do. However, this might not be a bad thing, seeing as how any amount of awareness a cause like this fetches, in any form, is welcome.

A look at what our reviewers said about the ad.

Mark McDonald, head of creative - Mumbai, DigitasLBi India, a digital agency from the house of Publicis.Sapient, says, "At the outset let me state that I (and perhaps anyone else reviewing this) come from a relatively privileged background where we take sanitation as a given. So it's hard for me to comprehend why a girl would take such an extreme step. As a film this is a compelling piece of communication that makes me want to watch it till the end. There are some nice touches that invite repeat viewing and the B&W treatment enhances the film. The sheer scale of the problem would get me to sign the petition. And it did."

"We can't glamourise such stories": Titus Upputuru on his 'World Toilet Day' film
"We can't glamourise such stories": Titus Upputuru on his 'World Toilet Day' film
He adds, "However, there's an added element the VO alludes to - that saving up for a daughter's marriage is far more important than putting an end to the indignity of not having a toilet. Was this layer needed? I'm not sure. Does it clarify why Kushboo took this drastic step? Sort of, but not quite. And that may be the one weak spot of the film - it never really tells you what Kushboo had to go through that drove her to this extreme step. Had they delved a bit into the 'psychological trauma' they mention this would have been a more complete film."

Adding further he says, "Do international juries award tragic Indian stories more than they do positive ones? Some of them probably do. Simply because it conforms to their (narrow) view of what India is, based on hearsay and a few 'shocking' stories that make the main stream media abroad. Yes, we have problems, and massive ones at that given the sheer scale of our country, but there's a lot more to India than just tragic tales. And I think international juries are now starting to recognise that."

According to Omkar Joshi, group director - brand communications, Gozoop, a digital agency, the film fails to capture the essence of her drastic step. "The core of her decision was the psychological trauma that she faced (and 300 million other women face) every morning. It is sad that all this film does is play on a heavily emotional aspect of a daughter's death. After a point, it loses all the power built through the visual B&W language as they end up showing her decision as a childish one."

He adds, "To add to this, it is not the real India that it portrays. There aren't women committing suicide everyday due to this. What they do face is shame and trauma. That should have been the main core."

Joshi adds, "This is not the stark reality of India. The reality is that the government has been conspicuously working towards providing toilets and sanitary facilities to homes in rural India. A lot of work is going on to set up these facilities. THAT is the reality of India."

Adding further he says, "The jury side is a stereotype issue. It could be that they have been exposed to so many messages that show India in a negative light, that they might be half-expecting such an end from an Indian filmmaker. Just like Afghan filmmakers are expected to do war-torn human stories. Also, in this particular film, the statistics at the end can be really disturbing for a non-Indian audience as they make an assumption that such suicides are common in India."

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