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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Toilet—Ek Prem Katha, Review by Siraj Syed: Loo and behold!

Toilet—Ek Prem Katha, Review by Siraj Syed: Loo and behold!

There is no point getting revolted by the title. Any fear that the film might have ‘dirty’ scenes can be laid to rest by the realisation that we have a robust Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) that sanitises every film before release. And almost every Indian knows that the current Prime Minister launched a campaign two-and-a-half years ago, to ensure that millions of villages and small towns in rural India that have been doing it in the open for centuries get toilets made. The campaign includes radio and TV spots by celebrities. Come August 11, 2017, and you have a feature film to further the cause: A feature film about the necessity of toilets in Indian villages. Yes. No kidding.

Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), India’s sanitation coverage has reached 60.53 % by May 2017. In 2012, it was merely 38 per cent. The target of 100% is likely to be achieved by October 2019. Some 400, 000, 00 toilets have been built, during October 2014-May 2017. Along the way, there has been some high drama, involving suicides and divorces. Newspapers and TV channels have followed these developments quite faithfully, but it needed a documentary or a feature film to make real impact. Indian documentaries have very limited budgets and even more limited audiences. Moreover, what documentary will be able to compete against the star-pull of Akshay Kumar, among the ruling box-office drawers of the country? So, don’t turn up your nose and/or raise your eyebrows, and let us see what the daringly titled Toilet—Ek Prem Katha (A Love Story) has in store.

Keshav is a manglik (born under adverse stars). He is already 36 but cannot marry, unless he is first married to a buffalo, and then a girl with two thumbs in one hand agrees to marry him. Unless these two things happen, he will be under the evil eye of the stars. The symbolic marriage to a buffalo is performed, even as Keshav’s real-life girl-friend is betrothed to someone else. He finds another, true love, Jaya, a feisty girl whom he encounters at a train toilet. He has never been to college while she is a college topper in their home state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). It takes a while and some face-offs before she reciprocates. Although she is considerably younger, her liberal family gives a thumbs-up to the union.

Speaking of thumbs, she has only one in each palm, which disqualifies her on digital count. Ingenious as always, Keshav, decides to con his father by getting an artificial extra thumb custom-designed and fixed on to Jaya’s palm. Rule of thumb in place, they get married. After a wedding night full of torrid love-making, Jaya is woken up before dawn by violent knocking on the door and repeated calling out of her name. It is the lota (metal pot) party of village women, headed for the forest, to relieve themselves. Jaya is shocked to learn that her husband’s house has no toilet, that every day she must go far away to defaecate in the open, and that the group must return before dawn, lest some passer-by see them in compromising positions. Her parental home had a regular toilet, and she cannot imagine living in a house that has no loo. Besides, what if she needs to do the needful during daytime? No, she is told. What’s worse, none of the houses in that village have toilets, nor are there any of the public variety.

It seems that writers Sidhharth Singh and Garima Wahal (Goliyon Ki Ras Leela—Ramleela, Raabta, web series The Shaadi Boys) made a check-list of the toilet situations and options they could include in the script. We have the great outdoors, a train toilet that is unisex and recurs several times, there are portable toilets that the hero sees at a film shooting outside their village and decamps with one to install at home, there is the home nala (sewer) that we see his father urinating in, the toilet built by the village elder on the first floor because bed-ridden old lady lives there, the toilet that Keshav builds in his house which invites the wrath of his father and the proposed public toilets that have the village up in arms. It’s like imaginative tick-boxes marked by a research team that keep pushing the script along.

They pay special attention to the train toilet. Besides being the spot where the couple first met, Singh and Wahal use it as a clever ploy for Jaya’s god-sent convenience for every-day use at a nearby station, where the train stops for seven minutes, overlooking the fact that passengers are constantly reminded by the railways not to use toilets at railway stations. Besides, trains on the Indian Railways are often late. What then? To their credit, the writer duo have woven in a wholly credible scene wherein some passengers carrying huge luggage block the toilet door while Jaya is in, and her subsequent decision, on emergence, not to pull the emergency chain as Keshav keeps shouting from the motor-cycle, but to proceed to her own home instead.

Rooted in dialect, the early earthy flavour of the dialogue starts wearing off when the writers get too cute, trying to make everything rhyme, and treat every conversation as a clap-trap game of wit and one-upmanship. Some of the comparisons are commendable, like when they have Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language) being equalled with sanskriti (culture/heritage). But when they get into jugaad-pahaad and shauch-soch, it becomes a bit much. In a remarkable chain of co-incidences, a solution pops up whenever a problem gets dicey. Even if the incidents are inspired from real stories, the locking of departmental toilets and the climax are cases of jugaad (fixing) going cinematically overboard.

Veteran editor Shree Narayan Singh (A Wednesday, Special 26, Baby) in his second outing as director (after Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai) is in his own when cutting across the span at a brisk pace in the first half. Later in the film, the editor in him re-surfaces as he follows the seven stage ‘supply chain’ of the Swachh Bharat Campaign. Elsewhere, he gets indulgent. A well-shot holi (festival of colours and other rituals) scene becomes a show-piece, replete with song and dance. When he does it a second time, Singh uses it to create wounds on Keshav’s arm, laying the basis for one of the many in-the-face truisms challenging age-old beliefs, this time about the rival efficacies of mud and Dettol, in treating injuries. At 155 minutes, Toilet—Ek Prem Katha comes across as 4-5 episodes or a TV series where three would have sufficed.

It does take some courage to sign a ‘propaganda’ film like this and mouth dialogue that cannot but be crude. Moreover, romancing a much younger heroine credibly while playing a 36 year-old (he is 50, by a trustworthy source) is no easy task either. Akshay Kumar walks through comfortably. His street smart Keshav would have been too cocky to be credible, had he not managed to impart that requisite spontaneity to the character. Bhumi Pednekar (age 27; Dum Laga Ke Haisha) is some 30 kg down from the overweight heroine of her debut film, and in good fresh, form. This in spite of the fact that we have seen UP heroines delineated almost exactly the same way in a few recent films. The moments when she contemplates before breaking into a smile have you hooked.

As the old man who prefers watching Sunny Leone videos over those of Mallika Sherawat, Anupam Kher breezes through in a uni-dimensional role of little consequence. With some cheesy lines, the garrulous Divyendu Sharma, playing Keshav’s brother, will endear himself to many. Sudhir Pandey as Keshav’s father is made to glower and fume, actions that he is a master at. Often cast as a burly gangster, Rajesh Sharma gets an opportunity to act, albeit in a minor role, as a government official helping the toilet cause. Shubha Khote is seen in a rare non-comic appearance.

Anshuman Mahaley’s camerawork captures creative copter shots and top-angles to give you a panoramic view of the locale. Occasionally, though, shots taken in natural light seemed darker than normal. Five songs take up 21 minutes of the music track, two of them about jugaad and bakheda (imbroglio). One, titled ‘Hans mat paglee’, sung by Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghoshal, is tuneful.

Defaecating in the open is a symptom of much larger sociological and religious baggage that millions and millions of Indians carry, often rooted in scriptures that date back to the several thousand year old discourse, ManuSmriti. Toilet—Ek Prem Katha addresses several other issues and practices as well, like the predicament of a manglik, marriage to a buffalo, a two-thumbed bride, covering of the head by women, the taboo of a divorce, morals in the modern age, Indian-ness and Western influences, and bites off much more than it can chew, as simplistic as loo and behold!


Rating: ** ½



About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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