Film: Toilet- Ek Prem Katha
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar, Divyendu Sharma
Director: Shree Narayan Singh
There is something strange about the lighting in Shree Narayan Singh's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (written by Siddharth-Garima). Especially when women are in focus. We see a group of women holding lamps and gossiping about husbands and mothers-in-law, as they make their way to the fields for their ablutions, just before dawn.
During the job, a miscreant in a tractor trains the headlights on them. From there on, every woman in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha - including the protagonist Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) - has a strange yellowish glow hovering above them, lighting up their face. It could signify two things.
That the spotlight is always on them even when open defecation is the norm in their villages. It could hint at the fact that the film is about them, about a problem that is not recognised as a problem and therefore, needs that spotlight. It could be the halo around them, the way the film wants to treat its women. Inadvertently, it also establishes the irony that the light is focused on an activity best performed behind closed doors, preferably with no one looking in.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is loosely inspired by the events in the life of Priyanka Bharti. Singh's film makes no bones about the fact that it has the blessings of the current Indian government. It begins with a text that roughly says that after Gandhi--who placed a premium on hygiene and sanitation--it was Narendra Modi's government that took up the issue seriously with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (the movement's emblem is a throwback to Gandhi's spectacles). For the most part--if you can get past the source of endorsements for this film--Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is engaging. Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar play their roles to perfection and some parts of the love story can even be endearing.
The film that feels like cinema and not propaganda exists in these moments. The characters of both, Keshav and Jaya, are delicately drawn even if it feels like Jaya's could have been something more than a textbook feminist. She is the feisty, educated one who hits all the right notes, but one wonders if it would have been more powerful if she was an ordinary woman, like any other in the village, but one who fights for what is right.
Keshav, who starts out as the sanskaari playboy (paraaya tv aur paraayi biwi kabhi on mat karna, he says), has a beautiful arc. He listens to his woman and when she orders him to stop stalking, he does.
What Toilet: Ek Prem Katha does so well with the chemistry between two people, it loses by expanding the story to a macro level. Suddenly, there are sermons, news channels, interviews and government officials populating a world that's grown too big for its own good.
Even a Chief Minister is brought in to make the most cringe-worthy reference that pushes everything into the realms of propaganda.
There are also some misplaced notions in the film's philosophy--in trying to be well-meaning, it borders on victim blaming. That's not all, it also puts the onus on the people for not identifying the problems. The film not only tips its hat to the ruling government but also absolves the government of all its responsibilities. Sabhyata (civilization) is the problem it says, not the government or bureaucracy.