‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’
‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’
Director: Shree Narayan Singh
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar
It’s but natural that a supposed comedy that is titled Toilet should be full of toilet humour. This is not. Well there are quite a few sexual, double- meaning jokes around Sunny Leone, mostly cracked by the proverbial, provincial ‘naughty uncle’ (Anupam Kher). Which is only fair, given that one of the more conservative societies in the world is also ironically the only one to have generously accepted a porn-star as a legit movie-star in the popular imagination.
It is also contradictions like these that this film touches upon, even if not spelling them out in so many words. The central issue of course is how, at one end, in desi homes, there is so much ‘lajja’ or ‘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. The lota being the steel mug carried for post-dump ablutions. Humiliation is complete.
One such girl (Bhumi Pednekar; absolutely first-rate) simply refuses to take this lying down, chiefly because she hasn’t grown up with this practice in her parental home. It’s a done thing in the family she’s married to. Her husband (Akshay Kumar) means well. It’s his foul-mouthed father who’s the problem. Sudhir Pandey—one of so many faces in films, whose names you never know—plays this portly Papa, reminding you instantly of how this actor, over a fairly long career, has so brilliantly specialised as the ‘douche dad’ on screen, most notably in the much under-rated, rural art-house film Matrubhoomi (2003).
This is a rare Bollywood movie with a very strong, authentic rural setting, with all its obvious obsessions with caste, and patriarchy. In another time and place, this would be the kind of subject that Bombay’s parallel cinema would throw up. This one stars the action-comedy hero Akshay Kumar, chewing on Neem twig (datun) for his toothbrush, sitting on a tree, biking around reveling in small-town swag/humour/repartee, while cow dung cakes are piled on in his terrace, and the Mathura hamlet erupts into ‘lath mar Holi’ (an odd form of celebrating the spring festival, where women hit their husbands with bamboo sticks!).
I guess mainstream movies can steer toward various directions, offering ever newer options for its viewers, not so much because of a fine director, as much as a movie-star who’s interested in challenging himself, taking risks. Akshay has a captive audience. This film is by a huge distance the furthest from his comfort zone, even accounting for the fact that he’s been picking up some fine offbeat stuff lately.
Whether Akshay’s homegrown fan-base is up for a film like this, of course, depends so much on how entertaining it is, while being earnest through it all. If anything, the latter often gets in the way of the former. And this isn’t just a problem with this picture. It’s possibly true for any movie that attempts to drive home such a strong message while being mindful of the fact that the audiences are essentially interested in a joy-ride, that’s all.
This ingenious ‘prem katha’ (romantic story), with the toilet (or the lack of one) as its central conflict, does strike a fine balance between earnestness, and entertainment for a good half, and then gradually descends into a lengthy PSA (public service advertisement), seemingly sponsored by the government.
Does it compel you to think though? Yes, it does. Honestly, given that India is pretty much the world’s largest spittoon, urinal, garbage dumping-ground the world’s ever seen, it hardly strikes you how common it is for so many people to find an open space, drop their pants, pull their sarees, and ‘hug’ (the more common word for s***ing). Even in cities, by the way, often in posh areas, where your window opens every morning to the sight of crappers at the gates of dawn. This is hardly acknowledged enough in public.
A lot of this ‘sundowner sundaas’, beyond poverty, as this picture so perceptively argues, has to do with ‘sanskaar’, wherein Indians see the toilet as an impure outlet to access anywhere inside the house, or near the kitchen. This is quite in line with how most Indians keep their own homes spick and span, even taking their shoes off as they enter, and yet don’t think twice before throwing all their muck, right outside the door.
You can sense this film seriously wants the audience to rethink this cultural oddity. It genuinely wants to change the world—hey, I’m the last to argue that movies can. But how can you not laud a mainstream pic that honestly tries to, and happens to entertain, for the most part?
Watch ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ trailer
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