Toilet: Ek Prem Katha will be hailed as a “necessary” social satire. It will be called a noble star vehicle with good intentions. It will be hailed in context of Akshay Kumar’s frivolous entertainment legacy – a rare content-heavy script full of important lessons, moral angles and progressive messages. It will be cited as a shining example of how mainstream cinema can be a medium for change in a country desperately looking to change.
But this is no film. Let’s not be fooled.
This is not a work of artistic integrity. It adds nothing to a Wikipedia page except the odd rousing monologue, 1990s Doordarshan exposition and awful lensing, idiotic songs and tough throat muscles. It might want to say relevant things about India’s withering sanitation culture and gender inequality. But it says these things in a fundamentally dishonest manner. In fact, it shouts these things. Noble objectives do not automatically translate into remarkable cinema; there has to be a desire to go beyond the book and incorporate these loud philosophies in the least obvious manner possible.
Simply bringing something like this to the big screen with the widest reach possible should not be enough. Suddenly we begin to judge such movies through the “social-message” prism; political correctness takes over, and we treat them leniently with baby gloves usually reserved for low-budget independent films.
But Toilet fails on most levels. It educates, shamelessly advertises, spreads awareness and sermonizes with the violent sincerity of a mouthpiece (“If our PM could remove corruption with note-bandi, surely we can shut down our government’s toilets to remove callous attitudes and ensure a cleaner India!”), but at no point does it embrace the essence of storytelling.
Dharam is rhymed with sharam, soch with shauch, and (biwi) paas with sandaas – two sides of thinking, two contrasting cultures, superstition against evolution, all demonstrated through the most simplistic black-and-white sequences possible. None of the characters are memorable. Because they’re simply the middle men, hired to deliver the country an urgent message.
Simply bringing something like this to the big screen with the widest reach possible should not be enough. And unfortunately, it always has been. Suddenly we begin to judge such movies through the “social-message” prism; political correctness takes over, and we treat them leniently with baby gloves usually reserved for low-budget independent films. At least the Madhur Bhandarkar and Salman Khan philanthropy entertainers don’t hold back on their unabashed dramatic language and kitschy characters. But there’s zero personality to Toilet. I’m not even asking for restrained treatment or intelligent grammar; I’m just asking for more than a kindergarten-level screenplay.
This might have well been one of those tacky government-sponsored Public Service Announcements that precede real films in cinema halls. It is not written; it is merely presented. This is, for all means and purposes, perhaps PM Narendra Modi’s most expensive campaign video yet. I’m not sure what it says about this current government in power, but Hindi cinema has never been populated with so many mediocre, pandering, agenda-spewing and unsubtle social dramas masquerading as “good-natured” and meaningful popcorn fare ever before.
The tired narrative formula, of course, is older than Akshay Kumar. Events proceed with the robotic splendor of a bot generator. The setup phase of these films is reluctant and awkward – not very different from, say, a Prabhu Deva film trying to establish faces and romances before embarking upon an orgy of gory action set pieces and vengeful villains. It’s almost unnecessary because we know exactly where the “meat” of the film is, and we know that the director is just biding time to get there. Why pretend to construct a plot? But it’s called “a prem katha,” so here goes.
We’re introduced to Keshav (Kumar) in a village named Mandgaon (obviously) near Mathura. His father, played with popping veins by Sudhir Pandey, is a God-fearing and blindly traditional Pandit – from the stone-ages’ India, and the “villain” of this tale. He represents ignorance. The film opens with the ‘lota party’ – a gossipy group of village women happily going to the fields at 4 AM every morning to “empty their bowels”. They exist so that Keshav can later tell them that women are the greatest enemies of womanhood. And an extension of that thought: the people and not the government should be blamed for the scams happening in this nation.
This might have well been one of those tacky government-sponsored Public Service Announcements that precede real films in cinema halls. It is not written; it is merely presented. This is, for all means and purposes, perhaps PM Narendra Modi’s most expensive campaign video yet.
Keshav falls for Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), who lives in the neighbouring village in a household full of progressive men (Kher lusts for Sunny Leone, and is open about it) and regressive women. He stalks her, she retaliates, he sulks and gives her a speech, and of course she falls in love with him – because that’s how they roll (in the hay). Nothing about them tells us that they naturally belong to this environment – the dialect, looks, body language and attitude. An American couple could have done an equally effective/incompetent job. But he is a superstar trying to make sense, so we must not question these petty inconsistencies.
His father is of the belief that only marrying a two-thumbed girl will bring luck (cue Hrithik Roshan puns). One fake thumb later, they’re married, until Jaya realizes that the village has no inbuilt toilets. Her job now is to transform her husband into a progressive, chest-beating, corruption-defeating symbol of mankind. So she leaves him.
They do an Amitabh-Hema from Baghban (2003) of sorts, staying apart for the greater good of society and higher learning. At times, it doesn’t even make sense to stay apart – because he does build her a toilet – but then the writers have foolishly committed by now to organically integrate the “love story” into the spiraling chaos. This couple is their only hope of making this look like a Bollywood film.
In the second half, Toilet predictably turns into a dated Peepli Live as it attempts to bring the macro picture into focus. We see shady ministers, media clips, minister reactions, public reactions, transformations, righteous ministers, villager reactions, product placements, simplistic sarkaari machinery and the whole sensationalist shebang. It’s all very familiar, and absolutely devoid of ambition and colour. Every scene feels like an insert, and every face sounds like a checklist of ideologies to be ticked.
Kumar breaks into tears at one point during his speech, frustrated with the narrow-mindedness of his villagers. This is the one moment I wholeheartedly related to in this film. The myopic, compromised, limited, safe vision of this industry’s “storytellers” makes me equally angry. Keshav gets me.