STORY IDEA - Jaya leaves her husband Keshav, as there’s no toilet at their house. Keshav sets out on a mission to win her back by fighting against the age-old values of rural India.
Channelling the unexplored woes of women in rural India, Toilet : Ek Prem Katha is one of the rare films that talks about the issues and functions of the women body, often considered grotesque for the mainstream audience, and is woven around the travesty of open defecation. Toilet is a love story of a newly married couple where the degree-educated wife asks for her right to a toilet at her new home, a demand which spirals the hollow concretes of social dogmas into a whirlwind with her husband at the centre of it. This is a premise that addresses a relevant social problem through a more personal one, will the men of rural India learn to stand up for their women and their basic rights? Let us find out if the plot explores the thematic possibilities of the idea and if it does justice to it.
The plot of the film is two-fold, one about Jaya-Keshav’s love story and the other about the problem of open defecation. And it is to the credit of the writers that they give the upper hand to the love story while using the social issue as a much-validated canvas, at least for most parts of the film. Lack of availability of toilets is essentially a device for the much larger expose of women living without their basic rights in rural India. However, later in the film, the device assumes the form of a campaign to align well with the ongoing tide of Swach Bharat Mission.
The film’s initial reels setup the love story between Keshav and Jaya almost at a snail pace, which disallows their primary conflict to kick in early. Keshav is a mid-30s man who has not gotten married due to his extremely superstitious father, who believes that his kundli requires him to marry a buffalo first, and then find a woman who has an extra thumb or else his marriage would fail. Being a supposed playboy himself, Keshav has a history of relationships, which he manages well with his business of selling bicycles. But when he falls for Jaya, he becomes the quintessential 20 year old who would stop at nothing to stalk her. Jaya, the well-educated and accepting woman, is the perfect anti-dote for an uncouth Keshav, who is horrified by his orthodox father. Amidst the laughs, we do sense a streak of righteousness in Keshav which wins over Jaya and she stalks him right back. They fall in love soon in a heart-warming series of scenes, soaked in nostalgia of the small town love affairs.
They manage to convince Keshav’s father by faking an extra thumb on Jaya’s hand. Their marriage takes place happily, but all hell breaks loose when Jaya is woken up the next morning by the women of the community to accompany them for their ‘lota party’ (signifying their ritual of going in groups to defecate in the fields). Jaya goes along, but when she sees the plight of the women openly exposing themselves in the fields, she gets disgusted and returns home, much to the shock of Keshav. Thus, the conflict in the drama is set up with Jaya telling Keshav to build a toilet inside the house or she would leave. Here, begins the ordeal of Keshav trying to help Jaya defecate every morning by finding various solutions, as his father outrightly rejects the petition for a toilet inside the house, calling it unceremonious for brahmins to break their age-old tradition. When Keshav’s quick-fixes for Jaya run out of steam, she does walk out on him and starts living back at her parents’ home, where she has grown up with a toilet inside the house.
Keshav’s desperate solutions to bring her back end up landing him in jail, which is when he decides to take up the matter with the village panchayat, who scoff at his request of building a toilet in the village for women. Keshav realizes that the problem is more universal than personal, as the women of the village are seemingly okay with defecating in the fields, while the men, as well as the panchayat are dead against breaking their so-called traditions.
Keshav, besotted by Jaya’s love, and determined to bring her back, decides to let go of his dubious ways of small-term solutions and approaches the higher authorities for a social change. He only realizes that one cannot blame the system and the government for all their plight, as sometimes, the change needs to come from within the society.
The first half of the film, although a bit overlong, is humorous and breezy, getting us invested in Keshav and Jaya’s love story. The second half of the film tries to strengthen the love story by putting it through various tests of time, but the conscious diversions into a propaganda driven message-y approach to the social issue makes the film a juggling exercise between education and entertainment, and would often put off even an unassuming audience. Ultimately, the humor does reduce and the climax rings untrue in an otherwise plausible film. Nevertheless, it is the love story between the characters that rides the film through despite being pulled apart by the need to force in the political agenda of its makers.
While Keshav and Jaya form the crux of the film, Toilet is also laced with some colourful supporting cast, most of which adds to the flavour of the film. Keshav’s brother, Naru, is the quintessential side-kick, carrying the abnormally high weight of the best of punches in the film. Naru seems to not have much of a life of his own, as he chooses to hang around Keshav all the time, but he is also the only one who believes in Keshav entirely, even when Jaya leaves him. Naru is Keshav’s sounding board, his bank of good and bad ideas, and ultimately, his well-wisher who would stick by him in his fight.
Embodying the role of the purposed antagonist of the film is Panditji, Keshav and Naru’s father, a man who is more of a chant-spewing patriarch, who has lived his entire life following the traditions and customs of his religion and being bound by it. He appears to be the lead custodian of culture in the village, while you would find many of his likes otherwise. His mother, Dadi, is where it all comes from as she propagates the same bigotry. On the other hand is Jaya’s mother, Vidya, who tells her to go back to Keshav’s house because he is a good man and that Jaya is over-reacting over a toilet. Both supporting women characters are etched out as a reflection of the men to drive home the point that women become their own biggest enemies. However, Jaya finds comfort in her father, and her Sunny Leone lusting uncle, Kakka, who have grown out of the dogmatic practices of our culture and don’t mind giving a piece of their mind to others as well.
While Jaya is a woman who challenges the small realities of rural India, whether by riding a bicycle built for a man or by calling out Keshav’s age, it is Keshav who becomes the centrepiece of this ensemble. Starting off as a rather callous fellow, it takes Keshav a while to be emphatic towards Jaya’s woes, but once he does, he slowly graduates to becoming her commander in her fight for dignity, not by heroics, but just by standing by her.
The screenplay of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, comes across as largely choppy due to a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the screenplay takes a long while to come to the core conflict of the film, which is the problem of defecation. It spends an unruly amount of time to set up Keshav and Jaya’s love story while it could have done away with a much swifter pace there. The middle portion where Keshav tries to find temporary fixes for Jaya’s problem are the better portions of the film and quite engaging. During the second half, the screenplay becomes preachy about the social issue and crams a lot more than it is built for in the final act. It is here that the scenes become a propaganda exercise for the filmmakers, a court case becomes an absurd excuse to blow the issue out of proportion, and characters begin to jump from their original nature a bit too conveniently.
But amidst the mess, there is a lot to like in it as well. The screenplay does manage to make us laugh, through the use of quirky dialogues, and punches, almost throughout the runtime of the film. Some power-packed scenes, which are not agenda-driven, do bring across a heartfelt love story of the protagonists who we want to see get together. Jaya hates the predicament she has been put into, but she loves Keshav, and he loves her back. It is this uncompromised love that works for this social melodrama, helped by striking performances of the cast as well. Use of subplots, albeit minimal, looks unnecessary, as are a couple of the songs, which only hinder the narrative, instead of adding to it.
On the whole, the screenplay does partial justice to the idea of the film by indulging in the loud campaigning of the social problem, and one does feel the want for a crisper narrative on the premise. The entertainment, despite being laced around a toilet, does not pass off as toilet humor, and it is appreciable. The message, although novel and well-meant, comes across as if it is being pushed down our throats, which makes us care less about it, and more about the love story, getting shortchanged at the hands of politics.
Sudeep is a trained screenwriter from Whistling Woods International and a freelance film critique. | firstname.lastname@example.org