A drab narrative draped in good humour, Akshay Kumar-starrer Toilet Ek Prem Katha is embellished with preachy monologues and one-liners that shamelessly sneak in praises for the ruling government. Yet, the idiosyncrasies of a talented star cast, a few hard-hitting dialogues and an overlaying social message brewed with humour will please those who enter the theatres to be tickled. We live in times when mediocre humour and overpriced popcorn sell like hot cakes.
Set in two neighbouring villages of Uttar Pradesh, the script that stretches beyond two hours offers no surprises. As the title suggests, it is a tale of two lovers separated only by their old habits that play the deal-breaker. The man, brought up in a superstitions household, doesn’t mind taking a leak anywhere, but the educated woman refuses to take a daily morning walk into the fields. But that warrants no tussle between the newly-weds. Keshav, played by Kumar, is a jovial, moderately educated and a progressive man who’s fallen in love. Even when he doesn’t relate to his wife’s demand of building a toilet inside the house, he is prepared to find an alternative for her sake. They soon team up and take the fight against a society, which believes that taking a dump in open fields is implied in their religious manuscripts and that one shouldn’t eat and poop under the same roof.
The first half of the film is forward looking. It introduces the deep-rooted practices of a regressive village where the women are slowly identifying the inconvenience, but are oblivious of the dangers of relieving themselves in the open. They resist the change for a long time before they find their voice through Jaya, played by Bhumi Pednekar, who in her debut movie Dum Laga ke Haisha, had faced a different kind of problem as a chubby bride in an arranged marriage. She delivers her preachy monologues right with spite and fury, but her character’s peculiar short fuse and righteousness is a repetition of her debut role.
Kumar’s acting is as neat as Keshav’s moustache as a 36-year-old man.
But, this time, he’s not the only one who lifts the film to its humorous best. Kumar is masterfully aided by Divyendu Sharma, whose rise to prominence has been the utterly sexist yet funny in parts, Pyaar Ka Punchnama. Barring his innocent monologue on unrefined traditions — which the script didn’t allow him to skip — Sharma is amusing as Keshav’s younger brother. You miss him when he’s not in the frame. Keshav’s father, played by Sudhir Pandey, is a stubborn, unrelenting pandit, relatable to real life. Cameos by Anupam Kher and Rajat Sharma are short, sweet and completely expendable.
The thematic hero in the script is education, depicted as the potential breaker of chains of lowly, manipulated traditional values. But the villain, however, is chosen to be sabhyata (tradition). This is where the creators turn a blind eye towards poverty and under-development, and hail the new-found political will to sanitise India. The reason of an absolute lack of household and public toilets in the said Uttar Pradesh village is conveniently shrugged off as the backwardness of its people.
At the peak of its over-the-top drama, the chief minister’s character carelessly speaks of the might of the Prime Minister to ban high-value notes for the (undeclared) greater good of society.
Yet the movie is not a sell-out. It stays true to its simplistic story and hammers the point home of having access to clean toilets as a basic human right. Even though the film suffers from an undercooked storyline, screeching background score, far too many situational songs and an unfulfilling wave of change in a rushed climax, it surprisingly does well as a one-time entertainer. If the government was investing in skilled people, this could well have been a full-feature ad film in the arsenal of the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission.