Toilet: Ek Prem Katha review - Preachy narrative overrules Akshay, Bhumi's performances

Swetha Ramakrishnan

Aug,11 2017 09:33 07 IST

An Akshay Kumar film means half the industry is going to promote it on social media. With Toilet: Ek Prem Katha releasing this Independence Day weekend, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar and Hrithik Roshan have given their Twitter blessings to the film.

However, the buzz about this satire on rural sanitation has been coming from many other quarters. Tying up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Campaign, leads Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar have been touring the country promoting safe sanitation and meeting with political leaders, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to promote the film.

The film itself is about Keshav, played by Akshay Kumar and Jaya, played by Pednekar.

A poster from Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Image from Facebook

A poster from Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Image from Facebook

The film begins with a bunch of giggly village women discussing their mother-in-laws and other familial matters as they head to a far away farm for their morning toilet rituals. But we're shown that there's always a pervert lurking around, flashing lights at them or following them. This is when Bhumi, as Jaya, makes an entrance. She almost dethrones a pervert on a tractor the next morning for cat-calling her. She's been established as feisty from the get-go.

Keshav is introduced as a playboy, who breaks up with his girlfriend on the day of his wedding with someone else. He has his typical sense of humour in tow — a familiar lackadaisical, mischievous attitude that Akshay Kumar has sported in a lot of his films.

We then find out he's getting married to a cow, since he's 'manglik'. Getting people married seems to be the only obsession of the elders in this village, some of whom include the very talented Ayesha Raza Mishra and Anupam Kher.

You know this film is meant to play on nationalist sentiments for two reasons: It's releasing on the I-Day weekend, and there's an actual dream sequence with Akshay and the cow in a field!

On Firstpost: The Akshay Kumar Playlist — As Toilet: Ek Prem Katha releases, a look at his craziest '90s songs

The first time Jaya and Keshav meet is in — surprise, surprise — a toilet. He leaves the door open in a train's loo, and when she screams at him, he falls for her. Typical. 'Badtameez keh do madam, bhaisaab nahi,' he tells her. This is followed by a bunch of exchanges between Keshav and Jaya about equality of the genders. You can see them falling for one another (if the background score wasn't enough indication) — him a little more than her. Since the film is called Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, it only makes sense that this much screen time is being used to establish their 'love'.

The problem lies in how he chooses to stalk her. Most of us use Facebook or other social media to find out more about our crushes. Keshav literally follows Jaya around and takes pictures of her. In most universes, this is creepy. But she seems to be happy about it.

Quick note about their acting. While Akshay is his cheeky self, Bhumi seems to be trying very hard. However, the tone of the film so far is breezy, so we'll have to see how she holds in more serious scenes.

Coming back to the stalking, there does seem to be a sense of responsibility in showing these scenes. There's no glorification of the stalking, they're showing it as it is. Jaya puts Keshav in his place immediately — and once he gets the hint, it's back to his lackadaisical ways. But by now, both have fallen for each other.

There's an impressive scene where Keshav tells his brother (played by Divyendu Sharma), that he's in love with Jaya, and the friend starts to sings a lewd song to denote it, when Keshav immediately stops him and yells at him for spoiling the mood.

With Jaya constantly calling Keshav out for being a ruffian, and the scene with Divyendu, at least we know there is an effort being made to change how these depictions in Bollywood films are being viewed. The icing on the cake is when, once she warms up to him, Jaya ends up following him and clicking his pictures. There is a role reversal that's shown. In all this nok-jhok, Divyendu Sharma stands out for his impressive comic timing.

Also read: How Akshay Kumar went from being Bollywood's 'khiladi' to its go-to 'common man'

After a lot of jugaad, Keshav and Jaya finally get married. Things have picked up pace plot-wise, by now. So far, a lot of effort is being made to show a funny, charming, 'man's man' avatar of Akshay. We can anticipate everything is going to change once Jaya realises the house has no toilet. Someone as feisty as Jaya won't settle for walking kms to use the loo only to be followed by a pervert.

As predicted, she creates a fuss about Keshav's house not having a toilet. The tone changes from funny to serious, courtesy the background score. Jaya gives Keshav an ultimatum to do something or she'll leave the house. Keshav's father seems to have a problem with having a toilet in the house for ritualistic reasons. As a city girl, I may not understand his issues, but perhaps the father's character is not used to having a toilet inside the house — at one point, he claims it's like having a graveyard inside one's home.

The film has now shifted from being about Keshav and Jaya to the search for a toilet. This is the first time I've seen a massive smile on a lead actor's face on seeing an Indian toilet. It's at this point that the film catches your attention.

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha takes its time to make a point but it does get there. In a not-so-sharp but seemingly earnest way, it tells you the issues women in villages face. The film starts with humour and slowly warms you to the reality of things. It's quite refreshing for a commercial film to take this path. There is an outward attempt to make everything entertaining and comical but the point comes across.

It's at the midway point that the couple spars over not having access to a private loo, and Jaya leaves Keshav.

There's a point to be made about Keshav and Jaya's fights about a toilet. He thinks she's making a mountain of a molehill, whereas she think he isn't concerned over the fact that women have to strip in public to use the loo. The narrative keeps shifting between these two perspectives. This is why, when Keshav takes an active interest in getting a loo installed by hook or crook, you appreciate the merging of the narratives. Many will criticise how the village and some villagers' mentality has been portrayed. There are men who seem to be living in the stone ages and are portrayed as they are. But with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, you can figure that an attempt is being made to bring both perspectives to the forefront — the conservative as well as the open-minded.

The positioning of the film is not just for urban centres but mostly for rural audiences to understand the importance of a basic toilet (of course with a peppering of love, songs and humour).

However one criticism of the film is that we are never shown the man's predicament. Where does he go? And what does he do? The assumption seems to be that men can go any where, and using a loo is not their problem. That's not entirely true and it shouldn't be. The fight should have been shown as from all sides and not just the woman's.

Sure, there is humour in a newlywed attempting to find a loo in a village for his wife to use. They find many different and innovative ways around the fact that the father doesn't want a loo in the house. But why does this fight have to be perpetrated for the woman alone? Does Keshav himself have no issues about sanitation? Shouldn't he?

Bhumi has a monologue moment, where she makes a point about why we need better sanitation. And her efforts slowly tend to change the minds of even the most conservative of villagers. But the crucial problem in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is that is seems to be trying too hard to be impactful — and too preachy.

By this point, the film reminds me of Pink, where we needed an Amitabh Bachchan to save the day. A hard-hitting story that showed us the reality of being a woman in Delhi, but positioned Bachchan as the saviour in that film, just as Akshay is the saviour in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.

Whereas, in my humble opinion, the film would have been far more hard hitting to all quarters (and not just its intended rural audience) if the issues were equally divided. The lack of sanitation seems to affect only Jaya and the women and Keshav seems to be the pacifier, and eventually the saviour in this situation.

A large part of the second half is spent showing various people trying to convince Jaya to go back to Keshav (because he's not asking for dowry or beating her up, so what's the problem?) and some people standing up for her right. Meanwhile, he's spending most of his time trying to get her love back.

Toilet would have been a far better and more holistic film if it were envisioned as a slice-of-life story about a couple and their issues with sanitation. As opposed to this film, which is trying so hard to be preachy and about social change. The agenda in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is very very clear and obvious.

The question then is, as a viewer, what is your tolerance for this? Personally I don't like films that are so preachy, and try so hard to hammer their point home. But this kind of narrative may have its own takers.

At the end of the day, it's the message that is important — even as we debate over whether or not we liked how the message was made.

Finally, in its last quarter, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha turns into a social commentary about corruption and governance. And in turn, becomes a platform for Akshay to be a hero once again. Does Jaya walk along with Keshav and help him in getting toilets in the village? No. She's at home, helping in whatever way she can. Ultimately, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha has its heart in the right place, and tries very hard to be balances in its point of view, but chooses a preachy way to portray it. Unlike a Dangal or a Peepli Live, a major portion of the film panders to overused commercial tropes. However, if a film like Dangal can make so many points about female empowerment and familial units, without being preachy, Toilet could have most certainly done it too. Things start moving only towards the last few minutes in the film, and by then it's all about Akshay. Bhumi becomes a mere catalyst. This is the biggest issue with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Some of you may be able to ignore this in wake of the larger message in the film, but I would have preferred a different film altogether.

Watch the trailer of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha here —