Synopsis – Keshav and Jaya are from two villages near Mathura, where at least 80% of households are without any access to a lavatories. Conflict comes knocking on the first day of their marriage, when Jaya leaves Keshav’s house for good, after discovering that there is no toilet in the home. Distraught and desperate, Keshav sets out on mission to win back his love- by battling against the age old traditions, mind-set and value system of his country.
My Take – In the past few years, it seems like Akshay Kumar has solidified his brand by starring in films that are usually patriotic, mostly commercial and totally consumable by traditional Indian families. And in every film, he gets to play a completely different role than the earlier & in this Shree Narayan Singh directed film he is in a new form. Marked as a contribution to the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan/ Cleanliness campaign, the film talks about one of the most common sights of India – be it on the train tracks or in a rural field – people relieving themselves in the open. With the current Government program against open defecation and the conversation around it, the film could very easily have slid into the serious, documentary narrative, but instead, it turns out to be a fun love story with the perfect combination of entertainment and education. Here, director Shree Narayan Singh holds up a mirror to one huge part of our society where superstitious villagers, lazy administration, and corrupt politicians have turned it into a large shit pond. It is appreciable that a huge star like Akshay Kumar has come forward to play the lead in the film which deals with a topic which most fractions of our Indian society still shies away from talking about, plus its undeniable that the film is refreshing in terms of the plot even though, the preachy undertones at times gets a bit too uncomfortable. Trust me, don’t look for subtlety in the storytelling and you will leave the cinema hall with huge smile on your face & some relevant thoughts on how easy life has been for us. Loosely inspired by a true-life incident, the story follows Keshav (Akshay Kumar), a 36-year-old unmarried man, who runs a small cycle business in a village near Mathura with his younger brother Naru (Divyenndu Sharma) & his priest father Pandit Ji (Sudhir Pandey).
Being from a society that still believes in age old traditions, Keshav lives his life under the thumb of his closed-minded father, and even gets hitched to a cow named Mallika under the directions of his pious and conservative father, who believes that this act will offset his misaligned stars & insists that whichever woman he marries must have an extra thumb. However, during a train ride with Naru, it’s love at first sight for Keshav when he comes across a sprightly college topper Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), who instead comes from a forward-thinking family. After some courting, the three scam the orthodox father into believing that she meets all his preconditions & get married in the largest way possible. However, all hell breaks loose when the new bride discovers that she has to join the remaining women of the village to complete her ablutions every day at the crack of the dawn. Reason? Keshav and the other villagers do not have a toilet in their house. The rest of the film revolves around how this personal conflict ends up challenging the orthodox age-old traditions & causes a rift between the two. The film doesn’t start by being preachy at all; rather the issue of no toilet is shown in quite a quirky way. The USP of the film is its dialogues, which are written well. Here debutant director Shree Narayan Singh makes hygiene and sanitation seem humorous without trivializing or tempering the issue. The sorority evidenced among the village women as they troop off in the morning for nature’s call is captured with a respectful laugh. Here is proof that a film can make a social point without wearing a constantly sullen demeanor. Throughout the lengthy film, the director maintains a kinetic momentum by keeping his character’s feelings on his fingertips. He negotiates the dips and curves in this bombastic tale of a man who must fight a century old tradition and as he takes on archaic thoughts and unquestioned age-old traditions, a wise sympathizer offers: “Don’t forget who the villain is—it’s progress. Fighting that is much harder.” There are many more such words of wisdom peppered throughout. There is a point of no return in the plot when we, the audience, become so immersed in the protagonist’s crusade for a better tomorrow that we are cheering and stomping our feet in encouragement for that bright sunshine-drenched tomorrow. The central issue of course is how, at one end, in desi homes, there is so much shame attached to how women must dress, or behave in public; and yet, such vast numbers of Indian families are perfectly fine with sending girls out in the open, under the sky, behind a bush, if any, to defecate practically in public—everyday. It is almost seen as a collective outing—a ‘lota party,’ as you can see here, here, the lota being the steel mug carried for post-dump ablutions and the humiliation is complete. The theme lends itself perfectly to satire. At first Keshav is unable to understand her stubborn stand, but by-and-by he comes around to her point of view and becomes the local crusader for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Keshav takes on the local panchayat, the corrupt government departments and even ends up in court. He even defies his father. “It’s not a matter of toilet, but a matter of thought,” says Keshav dramatically. Director Shree Narayan Singh remained successful in keeping a small-town flavor and earthy essence throughout. The famous ‘Lathmaar’ Holi of Mathura is shown nicely. The typical farms of Uttar Pradesh, riversides, and congested shopping streets are shot well. The film not only widely talks about sanitation issues but also women’s liberty and safety. Although, the film has its own agenda of creating a social reformation, primarily it is a fun love story between two individuals with different mindsets and lifestyles.
Director Shree Narayan Singh makes his cast blend into the rural life with utmost sincerity. From the dialogues, the sets and the costumes, it all rings true. Director Singh captures emotional authenticity between the lead pair, and the families rather well. The brightest moments in the film are the ones between Keshav and Jaya – the director makes the romance and their angst come alive on screen. The first half is particularly laced with humor – sometimes even on the naughtier side. The second half of the film, which could have been dragged a little less, was mostly served as dramatizing ways of addressing a cause. In this rural canvas, the film goes on to deliver lessons on a range of issues from superstitions, stalking to the importance of education for women, gender equality. The film is well meaning, well-intentioned but for its 155-minute run time, editor-director Shree Narayan Singh takes a circuitous route, stopping at all the services along the way, to get to the point—which is the making and use of toilets. This is essentially a cause-without-pause melodrama set at an opulent octave. Happily, director Shree Narayan Singh counterbalances those shrill notes of self-righteousness and propaganda with just the right doses of warmth, humour and irony. Despite all the positives, the length of the film is an issue. The film takes a lot of time to build and when it’s finally at the peak, things get done very quickly. The second half is full of high emotional drama moments which tend to slow down the pace at places, a good film should have a good intermission point and this has a very good one. The average songs in the film seem to be forcefully injected in the screenplay, just to treat the masala hungry audience. Akshay Kumar is undoubtedly the backbone of this satirical journey. He has yet again delivered a top-notch performance in an era where forty plus actors are struggling to get over their romantic image. Akki is definitely the biggest asset of the film, where he makes use of his funny bone to make sure the moments are humorous but also conveying the underlying message interestingly. He seemed very focused and seemed to enjoy a character without overdoing it anywhere. This film is not so much a vehicle to promote the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat campaign as to promote Akshay Kumar, period. He milks the film for all his trademark chuckles and giggles along with a certain sly and smoothness to his heroism. He has lived the role and is a perfect choice to send out this message. He makes you laugh, leaves your eyes moist and even provokes the emotions in you with his super-energetic opposition. His accent for a man living in Uttar Pradesh is perfect. Bhumi Pednekar’s second film and she’s already winning over our hearts. Her feisty act is to the point and never for a moment does she slip off her character Jaya. he as Jaya is the face of every girl who has ever faced this issue. She just makes you fall for her charm. It’s hard to master a de-glam role and she has nailed it. Her dialogue delivery, expressions are at the top of the game. In fact, there are scenes where she even outshines Akshay when they are in a frame. Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar play against one another in sparring spasms, their age difference notwithstanding, they really look like a couple. Divyendu Sharma and Sudheer Pandey put up a good act. Anupam Kher suffers from a poorly written role though he manages to give us a few laughs. On the whole, ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ is a honest & soft film that make you laugh, feel and most importantly think.
Directed – Shree Narayan Singh
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 155 minutes