(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
There is something strange about the lighting in Shree Narayan Singh’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (written by Siddharth-Garima). Especially when women are in focus. We see a group of women holding lamps and gossiping about husbands and mothers-in-law, as they make their way to the fields for their ablutions, just before dawn. During the job, a miscreant in a tractor trains the headlights on them. From there on, every woman in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha – including the protagonist Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) – has a strange yellowish glow hovering above them, lighting up their face. It could signify two things. That the spotlight is always on them even when open defecation is the norm in their villages. It could hint at the fact that the film is about them, about a problem that is not recognized as a problem and therefore, needs that spotlight. It could be the halo around them, the way the film wants to treat its women. Inadvertently, it also establishes the irony that the light is focused on an activity best performed behind closed doors, preferably with no one looking in.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is loosely inspired by the events in the life of Priyanka Bharti. Singh’s film makes no bones about the fact that it has the blessings of the current Indian government. It begins with a text that roughly says that after Gandhi – who placed a premium on hygiene and sanitation – it was Narendra Modi’s government that took up the issue seriously with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (the movement’s emblem is a throwback to Gandhi’s spectacles). It also brings out a confused chuckle by thanking Akhilesh Yadav, what with the eclectic set of names being thrown into the ring here. While this beginning is a dampener, Singh goes on to create a world that does look organic but at the same time is a dead ringer for Modi’s India. When we first see Keshav (Akshay Kumar), he is getting ready to be married to a buffalo. His father (Sudhir Pandey as Panditji) is an astrology and sanskaar nut who gives some nonsense about agni and how Keshav can get married only if he finds a woman with two thumbs. For a film that’s clued in on most things, how they did not cast Alok Nath for this part beats me. People in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha greet each other with radhe radhe. Cows and buffaloes populate the film’s environment as much as humans do. As do smartphones, Google searches and online shopping. The cows are repeatedly brought up in conversations about who really defecates in the open. Villagers quote vedas and manusmriti. Indian culture stands in the way of most development, including the idea of having a toilet at home. To the film’s credit, it tries to break out of such shackles, an effort that at least comes off as noble and earnest.
For the most part – if you can get past the source of endorsements for this film – Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is engaging. Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar play their roles to perfection and some parts of the love story can even be endearing. It packs in tiny details in their early relationship that find an echo later when they are married and the whole toilet problem surfaces. Like when he is so much in love that he claims he won’t show her the Taj Mahal but build one for herself. What he ends up building is anybody’s guess. Or when their meet-cute happens during lath mar Holi and later when they are living apart, there is a powerful moment between a wife standing up for herself and a husband seeking redemption. The film that feels like cinema and not propaganda exists in these moments. The characters of both, Keshav and Jaya, are delicately drawn even if it feels like Jaya’s could have been something more than a textbook feminist. She is the feisty, educated one who hits all the right notes but one wonders if it would have been more powerful if hers was an ordinary woman, like any other in the village, but one who fights for what is right. Keshav, who starts out as the sanskaari playboy (paraaya tv aur paraayi biwi kabhi on mat karna, he says), has a beautiful arc. He listens to his woman and when she orders him to stop stalking, he does. Thankfully Keshav is not made to be the evil husband who must magically win his wife back. He is someone who remains teachable – something that cannot be said of most men on matters of women. Singh is in tremendous control in these portions and when you expect a film like this to go for reaction shots, it surprisingly doesn’t. There is even a callback to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (in a no-you-may-not way) where Jaya chooses to stand her ground, possibly the film’s highlight.
What Toiler: Ek Prem Katha does so well with the chemistry between two people, it loses by expanding the story to a macro level. Suddenly there are sermons, news channels, interviews and government officials populating a world that’s grown too big for its own good. Even a Chief Minister is brought in to make the most cringe-worthy reference that pushes everything into the realms of propaganda. There are also some misplaced notions in the film’s philosophy – in trying to be well-meaning, it borders on victim blaming. If that’s not all, it also puts the onus on the people for not identifying the problems. The film not only tips its hat to the ruling government but also absolves the government of all its responsibilities. Sabhyata (civilization) is the problem it says, not the government or bureaucracy. The makers of Azhar, who absolved Azharuddin of all match fixing charges last year, will be proud of this whitewashing (sanitation?) effort. If the beginning was a dampener, the ending dilutes the whole.
Not sure if this is intentional but this is also the cleanest looking film on sanitation. Why can’t Bollywood make a film set in small towns about small town people that also feels authentic? The stars still look and dress up like stars. They are squeaky clean and even the members of the supporting cast look like they walked right out of the shower every time they are on screen. They wear clothes that look like they have been worn a sum total of zero times. Even the Holi scene isn’t wet and dirty – the colours are all carefully etched on their clothes and faces. Maybe they should look at films like Raju Murugan’s Joker, which also had a subplot involving a wife who refuses to get married till there is a toilet at the man’s home. You don’t see Joker and wonder if bathrooms and toilets are such huge issues, why do these people look like they’ve just had a bubble bath. A film about lack of sanitation has no business looking this sanitized.