The character of the chief minister in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha calls for locking up the toilets in government offices. He proclaims that the prime minister’s ‘notebandi’ (demonetisation) did well for the fiscal health of the nation (no, we can’t have any arguments on that). So will shutting down a few toilets lead to more of them being built, helping further the PM’s cleanliness drive? Even as you wonder, rolling your eyes furiously, the blatant propaganda for the government and its policies carries on. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for cleanliness is easily appropriated on screen much like it has been by the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ on ground—targeting open defecation and waste management but dwelling little on the crucial issue of human scavenging; wiping away any trace of caste dynamics.
- Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Sudhir Pandey, Anupam Kher, Divyendu Sharma
- Storyline: A bride raises a stink, just a day after the wedding, on finding that her new home lacks a toilet
- Run time: 155 minutes
If there were any doubts that Akshay Kumar is the poster boy of this regime they can be laid to rest with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha . If Manoj Kumar brought alive Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan—Jai Jawan Jai Kisan—on screen in Upkar (1967), Kumar does his bit to lend a helping hand to PM’s mission clean India 2019. But, while the former didn’t lose out entirely on creativity and imagination, here self-conscious obsequiousness gets the better of filmmaking.
While some amount of potential (eventually lost) is visible in the first half, the second half of the film ends in a total mess. Debutant director Shree Narayan Singh does well in locating the film in Mathura district, barely 150 kilometres from the Capital but lost to civilisation when it comes to matters of sanitation; where morning ablutions have been a pain for years what with basic sewage lines arriving late in the area, where eating and taking a dump have been going hand in hand, right there on the narrow streets next to the temples. Singh gets the larger sense of the place right—the mix of Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran , more significantly of the sacred and the profane, crudity and sweetness, especially in the language and the coarse humour.
The love story of Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) and Keshav (Akshay Kumar) is also pleasantly unconventional. It begins with a fight at the entrance of a train toilet and threatens to disintegrate with the toilet (rather the lack of it) looming large as a villain. Both the actors pack in a punch in their performances as does the persuasive supporting cast, specially Divyendu Sharma as the likeable Naru, the younger brother.
But the larger messaging gets all mixed-up and problematic. The hero might be having an affair before marriage (no, we didn’t mind that at all) but has to underline his essential goodness by asserting that he won’t continue with it on the sly once she gets married. He accepts aging (though he is still stuck at 36 than 50), the joke on praudh shiksha (adult education) is nastily nice one I thought. He makes rotis, cuts vegetables. The heroine, on the other hand, is outspoken, with a mind of her own, leagues ahead of the guy in intellect and education but eventually it’s the hero who has to win any and every argument with her; and win her heart too despite vexing and stalking her.
It’s also odd to turn open defecation into a woman’s problem and holding it (quite like the ‘skimpy clothes’ excuse) as a reason for rape (there is so much more to the crime). It’s here that the film turns entirely reductive and facile, be it its critique of Brahminism, Hindu rituals or the people, administration, governance and the system. Taking the onus of women’s problems back to women shows a discomfiting patriarchal mindset: “ Desh ki auraton ko khud apni izzat karni na aave (The nation’s women don’t know how to respect themselves).” The toxic male sense of entitlement shines through in lines like “ biwi paas chahiye, to ghar mein sandaas chahiye (have a toilet at home if you want your wife next to you)”. Cringeworthy!
Then, there is the larger question of not quite being able to see the issue of sanitation in its complexity. Can the problem be solved just by building more toilets? What of our inherently unhygienic ways? What of Gandhiji’s call to keep toilets as clean as the living rooms? Using the swanky washroom in a plush Bandra hall I also wondered how much of the film’s messaging will reach out to the privileged side of an India split wide into extremes?