“Toilet – Ek Prem Katha”… An overlong, messagey, but satisfying social-issue melodrama

Posted on August 17, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

When I heard of the premise of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha – the problems arising from the lack of toilet facilities – I thought it would be like Joker, the Tamil drama whose crux was similar. But Toilet isn’t as sophisticated. It’s something far simpler, something you don’t expect to see in these cynical times filled with Hollywood-ised filmmakers: it’s a social melodrama aimed at producing social change. Something like Main Bhi Ladki Hun (Naanum Oru Penn in Tamil), the Dharmendra-Meena Kumari weepie where the issue was skin colour. Only, that sort of thing is far easier to talk about, put across on screen.

Think about this for a minute: an entire film woven around open defecation in the context of women. We rarely talk about female body functions – maybe we get the shot of a face in ecstasy during a wedding-night scene, or in a song, but certainly nothing else. Even Hollywood resists going there, which is why it was such a big deal, back in the day, when Carrie Bradshaw farted in a Sex and the City episode. We may have subsequently gotten The Bridesmaids, but that was less a drama than a gross-out comedy. The grossness became the comedy, while here, it’s the drama, the villain of the story, the scatological equivalent of the rich heroine’s father keeping the lovers apart.

Which isn’t to say there’s no humour. The director, Shree Narayan Singh, frames a lot of shots with cow-dung cakes – the film is set in a village in Mathura – and the early-morning ritual itself is labelled a “lota party.” The women gather, take the trek to the outskirts, laughing and gossiping along the way. There, they squat in groups, unmindful that there may be snakes or scorpions around. The director’s triumph is that he doesn’t make us avert our eyes. All of this is presented not as something horrific or disgusting, but simply as a way of life, one that’s unacceptable to Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar, generally very effective, except in the louder scenes), who, simply put, is the hero of the film.

The nominal hero, Keshav (Akshay Kumar, in fine form) is introduced in a scene that feels unnecessary. He’s breaking up with his girlfriend, and there are hints that he’s a bit of a player. But given the later developments, I saw why such a scene may have been necessary to underline the hero’s “masculinity.” Because otherwise, he’s terrified of his tradition-bound father(Sudhir Pandey, in eye-popping mode), who’s the epitome of the shastra-spouting Brahmin, while Jaya takes on eve-teasers, is openly sexual, and has no problem riding a bicycle built for a man. Keshav, who falls for her in a scene revolving around – wait for this – a toilet, stalks her during a song, and she not only shames him for this but also brings up his being much older. And after falling for him, she stalks him right back.

But after marriage, Jaya, an agriculture-degree holder, is reduced to being a housewife. Was this a choice? Was she denied one? At least, she accepts it. But she won’t accept the fact that she has to join the other women, every morning, and expose herself in the open. (Put this way, it sounds horrible, as it should.) She moves back in with her parents, where her mother asks her to reconsider her decision, as Keshav is such a good man, who hasn’t even asked for a dowry. Even the women don’t get Jaya. The story is an accumulation of small social realities.

Toilet is too long. Many incidents are hammered home more than once. (The entire subplot around Jaya pretending to have two lucky thumbs is redundant, because her father-in-law’s superstitious nature has already been established.) The second half, especially, gets into a messagey zone, with scenes around panchayats and PILs. (Rajesh Sharma has a lot of fun as a well-meaning government official.) The concluding portions, including a women’s protest that’s shrilly staged, aren’t very convincing, and if you’re going to have so many songs, you’ve got to have better ones.

And what about the scenes hinting at Akshay Kumar being the new Manoj Kumar? He urges us, rightly, to not expect the government to do everything but to take responsibility for at least a little change. An opening note talks about the 1917 Champaran movement, and how— exactly 100 years later (talk about timing!) – villages today are little better. And just wait for the glimpse of Anupam Kher, who plays Jaya’s uncle, in a saffron vest and a green shirt. Was the actor roped in simply due to his pro-establishment stance? The role, really, adds little to the story.

But the film works. It’s a tricky back-and-forth between education and entertainment, and Toilet, for a good part, gets by without being in-your-face about its agenda. As the title suggests, there are two parts to the film: the part about the toilet, and the part about the prem katha, and this love story makes the movie. Jaya hates her situation, but she loves Keshav. When she discovers there’s no toilet at home, she doesn’t throw a tantrum, and she doesn’t complain to her parents. She says, very quietly, “Tum kuch karo ya main chali.” (Do something, or I’m off.)

And Keshav obliges. He is shown to be a quick-fix man rather than someone who thinks of long-term solutions, so at first, we get a series of amusing scenes where he helps Jaya find a toilet. It takes him a while to just get it, but once he does, he stands by her. It’s wonderful to see a love story where the hero proves his love not by heroics, but by standing by the heroine in her fight for dignity. This isn’t the kind of love story with duets and chiffon saris. It’s something bigger. It’s about the kind of love where the man builds a monument for his woman – only, with a commode inside. Outside, he hangs a picture of the Taj Mahal.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi