Toilet: Ek Prem Katha — Why does Akshay Kumar's character have to be a stalker?
Bollywood is no stranger to portraying stalking in films.
This antisocial behaviour has been used as a trope in many songs, such as Varun Dhawan's in 'Tera Hero Idhar Hai', and a way to show courtship, such as Salman Khan's Radhe Mohan in Tere Naam, who stalks and eventually kidnaps Nirjara, and forces her to reciprocate his feelings (there's a long list of other examples).
More recently, it has also been used to show the changes in the behaviour of a character, such as Varun Dhawan in Barinath Ki Dulhaniya, who goes from being an abusive to a more sensitive version of himself by the end of the film.
Scores of men have followed women in these films with the objective of loving them (read: controlling them), and in most cases, the filmmakers completely ignore the fact that this amounts to harassment. Many women characters in these scenarios made their displeasure and lack of interest, and even sense of harassment, clear to the men, but this did not deter them. Eventually the man ends up winning the woman's heart.
Indian society is no stranger to the harrowing consequences such portrayals of "courtship" and "romance" have for women, who are followed by men emulating such male characters. Women have been stalked for months, molested, raped, thrown acid at and killed by men who find that their actions are not being reciprocated or appreciated.
Added to this list is Akshay Kumar's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. In one particular song of the film, called 'Hass Mat Pagli', his character Keshav can be seen following Bhumi Pednekar's Jaya on a motorbike, filming her on his mobile phone, boarding the same train as her to watch her and climbing a tree in order to get a better view of her.
In the trailer of the film, seconds after we see this voyeuristic behaviour, the duo magically fall in love. Clearly, Keshav managed to win Jaya over, whether through these harassing tactics or through some change in character (though we predict it is the latter).
In what may seem like an inconsistency in character, Kumar's Keshav will later go on to start a mass movement for the building of toilets for the women of his village, who up until this point were forced to relieve themselves in fields. This will eliminate many of their problems, such as contracting diseases due to unhygienic environments, having to travel long distances, and of course being robbed of their privacy as they become easy prey to men who will watch them.
Taking into consideration all of these plot points, Keshav's stalking tendencies make him as much the problem as he is its solution.
Akshay Kumar's character is clearly unaware about why his actions are problematic. It is easy to understand his attitude when you dig deeper into his motive to build the toilet.
In one scene from the trailer, he asks Bhumi's Jaya what about the lack of a toilet made her so furious. She has to threaten him and tell him that she would not have married him, had she known that there was no toilet in his house.
This remark hits home for Keshav, a manglik with an undesirable kundli, who was hell-bent on getting married. This is when he takes it up as a personal mission, not because he is a feminist. The title of the film succinctly explains how ensuring that she has a proper place to relieve herself is almost equal to loving her. Maybe the motivation to build a toilet would not have been this strong, had the demand come from his sister or mother.
But the issue with this part of the film is not just that it will embolden male viewers to emulate Keshav. It need not have been part of the narrative at all.
A similar voyeuristic tendency is portrayed in the Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries. In one particular scene where the director intends to give the viewers an introduction into what the 'groups' (local gangs of young boys) of Angamaly do in their free time, there are shots of them drinking, riding bikes and peeking into the bathrooms of women.
These actions are undeniably wrong and must be condemned, but that being said, they seemed to fit in with the narrative of a film where passions of food, lust and violence, run high. I am in no way endorsing voyeurism, but if you watch the film and ask yourself, "Is this five-second long shot of misogyny and harassment organic to the plot of Angamaly Diaries?" the answer is yes.
Angamaly's society is a flawed, patriarchal one, and to portray it minus its patriarchy is a compromise in honesty.
It can be argued that the same case can be made for Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, too. It, like Angamaly Diaries, is set in a rural area where gender equality is a far-away dream. Except that Angamaly Diaries is the portrait of a toxic society reeling under the side-effects of gang violence.
Akshay Kumar's film, on the other hand, is meant to be a positive, educational story. It brings together the seemingly unrelated subjects of marriage and public sanitation to tell a tale of development coupled with empowerment, safety, and progress in achieving equality. Rather than audiences in urban areas, the film is targetted towards those families in lesser-developed pockets who face the same troubles as Bhumi Pednekar.
Is it not detrimental that such a film has mixed messaging about how a society must treat its women? Will all audiences be able to label the stalking aspect of the film as being unacceptable and wrong, and the will to build a toilet for women as being aspirational? Or will they consider both aspirational, since the lead actor of the film engages in both?
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is a film that deals with public sanitation, with a focus on women's sanitation. While the initial seed of the idea for a toilet in the house comes from Pednekar's character and she is the driving force behind Akshay Kumar's initiative, it is he, a man, who ultimately becomes the face of it.
Once again, a man is the pioneer and messiah of positive change for women in a world where they are untreated unfairly, because of men. Feminist critics will call the film out because of this, just like they did in the case of Amitabh Bachchan's Pink, as they rightly should.
People who come to the film's defence will say that the job of building of the toilet could only have been done by a man, even if the idea came from a woman. Sadly, an overwhelming majority women just do not have the power to mobilise the support of an entire village and change the attitude of men.
By making Akshay Kumar the change-maker, perhaps the makers of the film are attempting to make the messaging more familiar; they are trying to speak the language of the target audience. Perhaps the stalking part of the narrative is in line with this objective, because an overwhelmingly large number of men still believe that stalking is a legitimate means of courtship, thus making Keshav relatable.
While it is still a little easier to digest the fact that a man is 'necessary' to bring about this sort of change, the added characteristic of being a stalker seems wholly unnecessary.