Vohra's Q2P Film Explores Social Constructs in India
When I told friends that I was planning on attending last Monday’s screening of Q2P, Paromita Vohra’s latest documentary, I was met with one of two reactions: the first being a sincerely confused, “What?” and the second, a slightly less perplexed, if somewhat disinterested, “Oh, cool, the one about toilets?” Like many events on campus, the Q2P screening lay hidden to a large sector of the College community, its posters veiled beneath a plethora of competing advertisements and its visibility dependent on the schedule, interests and topic-familiarity of the viewer.
The subject of Vohra’s thought-provoking documentary — the (de)construction of public toilets in Mumbai — is at once as visible and concealed as the event itself. Combining contemplative animation sequences, panoramic views of the bustling city of Mumbai, quickly interspersed still shots and footage of interviews with individuals ranging from the self-consciously comedic owner of a toilet history museum to often ignored sanitation workers, Q2P brilliantly tells the story of the building of public toilets in India’s largest city, all the while imploring its viewers to carefully consider the many unvoiced meanings underlying these uncomfortably obvious entities.
From the opening scene, consisting of still shots of construction sites set to a fast-paced, futuristic beat and the declaration that the film is an “exploration of the idea of the city and…of the kind of cities we’re building for ourselves,” Q2P establishes itself as a direct, widely applicable and future-focused analysis of what it means to be urban in the contemporary era. Images of women waiting in long lines for a single public restroom, explorations of the construction of bathrooms in different religious and economic communities and discussions of when and why women may choose to avoid these toilets highlight the social, caste, class and gender issues that complicate singular perspectives on toilet construction and development projects more broadly.
One of the most successful aspects of the film is its delicate balance between comedy and serious dialogue. In a question-and-answer session following the screening, Vohra commented on this balance. She described the difficulty of portraying public toilets as more than the subject of bad jokes yet less than a depressing indication of the constraints of development projects. In addition to discussing this challenge, Vohra talked about the experiences that inspired her to produce the film, the electronic soundtrack, the use of Q2P by development activists worldwide and her personally unconventional approach of “understanding the film as I was filming” rather than “working with a kind of script.”
Provocative scenes such as a clip showing an interview with a mother bathing her newborn child in the street with water from a public toilet inspired involved discussion among audience members. Images of adolescent girls dancing to “take back the night” and discussions of how “free” access to toilets challenges the caste system moved viewers to question interpretations of development.
Animated sequences depicting the construction of new toilets in impoverished communities, the objectification of the female body and the existence of “two cities” within Mumbai bridged conceptual gaps between interviews. Combined with Vorha’s post-film comments, these visual elements of Q2P forced the viewer to move beyond the embarrassment usually associated with public toilets.
Ultimately, Q2P provides an eloquent contemplation of the implications of toilet construction, the effects of adopting one development philosophy over another and the limitations of these competing perspectives.
In addition to Q2P, Vohra’s work includes the direction of Un-Limited Girls (2002), Annapurna (1995) and A Women’s Place (1999); the script for the 2003 Khamosh Pani; and the writing of a fortnightly column in the Mumbai Mirror, among other projects. Q2P has won several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and the German Star of India award for Best Documentary at the Bollywood and Beyond Film Festival in Stuttgart.