In the darkened Goa multiplex, the cheers and whistles from the audience are what usually follow when Salman Khan rips his shirt off on screen. But the whistle and cheer-inducing film is not even the main feature. It's a short film commissioned by the ministry of information and broadcasting. Its subject: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. When it is over, cries of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' fill the auditorium.
You have to hand it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his canny ability to understand the public pulse. To be sure, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not a new programme. Launched in 1986 as the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, the scheme has undergone various avatars as the Total Sanitation Campaign (1999) and Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (2012). But never before has a sanitation programme, albeit a renamed one, received the sort of public support and approval as this one.
In many ways, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan picks up the threads from several of Modi's pet themes: Greater citizen participation, discipline, women's empowerment, love of Bharat. His choice of nine citizens as the harbingers of this sanitation revolution - women, Muslims and even Congress MP Shashi Tharoor - make for an agenda that he deems is above politics. Attacking their party MP for 'praising' the prime minister only shows up the Kerala Congress's partisanship. I would rather question the choice of Salman Khan, main accused in a hit-and-run homicide and blackbuck poaching case.
It's early days yet and while media bombards us with images of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Ambani sweeping their designated spots, a sanitation mission surely goes beyond picking up litter and must embrace not just sewage and industrial pollution but the environment and water. The scale of this work - redesigning toilets on trains for instance - cannot be done by citizens and must remain the responsibility of the government.
This is not to say that citizens have no role to play. Part of India's sanitation problem that has vexed this country for over six decades has to do with lack of public awareness. Policy planners and government officials have failed to explain the need for sanitation - toilets are just one aspect - and all too often household toilets built by government funds end up as storage or cowsheds. Worse, sanitation has rarely been regarded as a cause worth backing by corporates.
Now, everyone has jumped on to the sanitation bandwagon. And its importance cannot be discounted. Sanitation takes along in its sweep children - 1,600 children under the age of five across India die everyday because of unhygienic practices. It takes along education in a country where 24% girls drop out of school because of a lack of toilet facilities. It takes along women's security where 30% women who use the open in lieu of toilets face assault, according to a Dasra report. Given its wide-ranging scope and the fact that every dollar spent on sanitation results in at least $9 saved in health, education and economic development, Modi's investment in the issue, provided it is sustained, could be the big game-changer India is seeking.
After years of focusing on mammoth projects - dams, food security, literacy - the Modi government has picked on what has the potential to be its defining programme. Large-scale funds are required. But by placing the onus on individual participation, Modi is challenging every citizen: Can we rise to the occasion? Can we actually stop to pick up and clean up our own mess, instead of expecting someone else to do our dirty work for us? And can we put our individual ideologies and biases aside for a cause that no right-thinking person can quarrel with?
Back at my multiplex, three hours later, the movie is over and as people troop out of the hall, I notice the blue-uniformed men waiting patiently with brooms to pick up, as always, somebody else's rubbish - spilled popcorn and empty cans of Coke. Clearly it will take more than just one short film or photo op to bring about change. But equally clearly, this is a message that bears repeating, and repeating until it hits home.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)