Directed by Shree Narayan Singh and starring Akshay Kumar, Bhumi Pednekar and Anupam Kher, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is the much-awaited satirical comedy film about the age-old practice of open defecation in India. The film has been making headlines ever since its trailer was released and has been commended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who of course is the mastermind behind the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that aims to improve sanitation conditions across the country.
The film is rather loud and leaves little to the imagination. But that isn't really a bad thing if you are targeting rural India as well as tier 2 and 3 cities.
So toilets and love stories... how do the two meld? In Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, we have a 36-year-old protagonist named Keshav whose superstitious father has been repeatedly dashing his hopes of getting married on astrological grounds. So with each passing day he grows more desperate. When he finally finds the girl of his dreams he somehow succeeds in convincing his sceptical father. So they get married. But there is a twist in the tale. She gets the shock of her life on realising that the house of her in-laws has no toilet. Like every other woman in the village she must wake up very early in the morning and defecate out in the open. Now, she is a modern, educated girl and it is just not acceptable to her. So she threatens to leave. The husband tries his best to make some temporary arrangements but when all his efforts fail he launches a campaign to get a sewer line in place. What ensues is a typical battle between the corrupt administration and the common man determined to fight for his rights.
Although, the film has a humorous tone, it has a rather serious issue at its core. We often end up taking sanitation for granted, especially those of us living in urban areas. We lose sight of the fact that open defecation remains a major concern in rural areas. Over 500 million people in India have no choice but to go out in the bushes, fields, forests, or other open spaces to answer nature's call. This practice not only facilitates the spread of diseases but leaves women vulnerable to sexual assault. According to a report, over 200,000 children die every year from diseases caused by faecal contamination, such as diarrhoea, in India. It is therefore important to spread awareness about the issue and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha does just that.
As for the question of whether we should pay to watch a fictionalised Public Service Announcement? Well, at least it's starring Akshay Kumar!
Yes, the film at times resembles a Public Service Announcement (PSA) but it is certainly entertaining. It is also rather loud and in your face (the subject matter invites double entendres and toilet humour!), and leaves little to the imagination. But that isn't really a bad thing if you are targeting rural India as well as tier 2 and 3 cities. The message is accessible and not alienating. Yes, it is somewhat problematic that Toilet has some of the trappings of a propaganda film, laying on the praise thick for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies—including demonetisation! Perhaps, movies like these are here to stay. Not only because our society requires them but also because our politicians need them. As for the question of whether we should pay to watch a fictionalised PSA? Well, at least it's starring Akshay Kumar!
A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.