Toilet – Ek Prem Katha Review: It Doesn’t Entirely Stink.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Anupam Kher, Divyendu Sharma, Sudhir Pandey
Director: Shree Narayan Singh
It’s refreshing to see a big-budget, glossily produced Bollywood film centring on a socio-political issue.
Akshay Kumar was the obvious choice to play 37-year-old Keshav, the son of a village Brahmin pandit and Manglik-victim to his astrological chart. Bhumi Pednekar is strong as Jaya Joshi in her second film role. She’s dropped a few dress sizes since Dum LagaKeHaisha (2015), though plays a similar role: a strong willed, determined working class girl out to challenge society’s stereotypes.
The chemistry between class topper Jaya and cycle store owner Keshav is palpable despite their different backgrounds. While it’s not exactly love at first sight, the two marry quickly and Jaya shifts to live with Keshav, his younger brother, and father Panditji. Jaya is horrified to be woken in the early hours of her wedding night by the ‘lota party’, a group of village women who venture out under the cover of darkness to defecate in the fields. From a more educated background than Keshav’s family, Jaya has taken it for granted his family will have a toilet at home.
When Jaya makes it clear she’s prepared to divorce over the toilet issue, Keshav is energized into action and thus begins a half-hearted attempt to challenge age-old traditions and overcome his narrow-minded father’s reluctance to change. Keshav’s desperation to have his wife return skims the surface of a bigger problem Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to tackle head on through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India) programme. At present in India, 300 million women and children are forced to defecate in the open, increasing the risk of rape and exposure to potentially fatal diseases. While national statistics are lacking, smaller scale projects have recognised the very real dangers open defecation pose.
Both Keshav and Jaya, on repeated and separate occasions in the film, apportion blame to the village women for not protesting this entrenched culture which makes for uncomfortable viewing. Keshav’s romanticised stalking of Jaya and taking photographs of her without her knowledge and using them without her consent, as well as him later outright rejecting her by taking her phone without her consent and deleting his phone number is similarly concerning. It represents an inconsistency in Keshav’s drive for change; challenging orthodox Hindu concepts of purity and pollution are portrayed as outdated and in desperate need of reform, yet stalking women and blaming them for their suffering is acceptable? Most uncomfortably of all is Keshav’s assumption of the benevolent patriarch role desperate to change the situation for all Indian women through his lust for one.
The plot struggles to find its pace and clearly identify itself as a comedy, drama, or social justice film. The first half focuses on Keshav in Kumar’s best avatar: the jokey, jovial, stupid-but-well-meaning everyman’s man. We see him break up with his girlfriend, marry a cow, and chase around after his future-wife Jaya. There are some fun song-sequences and some well-timed comedic surprises.
Post-interval, the tone changes to serious and verging on preachy. Keshav takes it upon himself to challenge his father, the villagers, and corrupt planning and development officials. There’s a lot of unnecessary flitting around until the film reaches its climax and a toilet is provided in the village symbolising the triumph of Keshav over everyone and implying the potential national hope of Modi’s campaign. Rather than jumping around between genres and fluctuating between classic Kumar comedy-with-a-purpose (as in his Jolly LLB roles) and serious Dangal (2016)style social reform, the director Shree Narayan Singh should have stuck with a genre and honed it better.
It’s an entertaining movie overall and it doesn’t entirely stink.