The noblest ideas are very often derailed by clunky execution. This is the problem with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which had the potential to become a deep, dark satirical take on one of the biggest problems that still shamefully plagues India: defecation in the open.
The film which has to contend with a clunky title in the first place, wastes much of its initial bits in creating a romance between the middle-aged Keshav (Akshay) and the sprightly Jaya (Pednekar), which derails as soon as the latter turns into a ‘nai-naveli dulhan’ and discovers that she has to be part of a ‘lota party’ at the crack of dawn to complete her ablutions.
If the conflict had stayed personal, this could have been something to watch. Because both Akshay who admits to looking his age, and Pednekar who steps into her second film pretty much like she did in her first (the wonderful Dum Laga Ke Haisha), spark well together. And the reason for the conflict, a basic human need, should have taken us down a new path in mainstream Bollywood cinema. If only the treatment hadn’t been so heavy handed, and bent upon underlining the obvious.
But the film is after something larger. It is after society. It is after culture. It is so busy pointing fingers at the Indians, good people but blinded by tradition of ‘jis aangan mein tulsi hai, usi mein shauchalaya kaise ban sakta hai’, who will still go out into the open, that it forgets that polemics make good academic papers. They do not necessarily make good films.
It’s fitting that Akshay Kumar has greenlit and played the lead in this film, which is more a primer on How To Break Social Taboos and Make Toilets rather than a powerful social drama. The moment a film succumbs to being the carrier of a Message as opposed to a message, it becomes burdened.
Akshay has been playing the nationalist hero in his last few films, filling in the space that Manoj Kumar had left vacant. And he’s done a good job with it: there’s something in the way he comes at being earnest that you want to believe.
Here too, he tries hard to get past the heavy-handedness and the clunkiness and the leaded messaging which engulfs the second half, when you have to go looking for the movie from under the message. And you have to look for a long time, because the film feels so stretched: a `lath-maar’ Holi sequence is bunged in, because a) it’s Mathura and b) well, because it’s a song-and-dance.
This kind of film, where the s**t literally hits the fan, where you can see real turd droppings, and the dialogue is filled with such ‘sanskaari-sarkaari’ words like ‘soch’, ‘shauchalaya’ and ‘sandaas’, needs a light touch. You need the ‘khadi boli’ of Mathura, where the film is set, spoken with a great deal more authenticity. And above all, if you are going to give me a feisty heroine who is happy to throw off her ‘ghoonghat’, and rail against patriarchy, you should not make her touch anyone’s feet. If you are making a film that hoists a flag for a strong feminist ideal, then don’t waver, and confuse it with stuffing the film with too many issues.
Otherwise, you dilute and confuse things, especially because your lead actors have stayed the smelly course.