T.N. Seshan, the former chief election commissioner credited with helping clean up elections in India, famously compared government committees to a visit to the toilet, saying people sit for long periods without getting anything done. Shree Narayan Singh's "Toilet - Ek Prem Katha" is about as interesting as a government committee.
The film, part publicity stunt for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India Mission and part meandering love story, tells of one man’s mission to build a toilet for his wife. It should actually have been a movie about how grown men in India still can’t find the spine to confront their parents about age-old beliefs and regressive traditions.
For Keshav (Akshay Kumar), finding a wife is next to impossible because of his orthodox father’s expectations, one of which is that the bride must have two thumbs - a sign of prosperity. He falls hard for Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), and eventually marries her (even fashioning an extra thumb for her from clay). But when she leaves him because he doesn’t have a toilet at home, Keshav must stop pussy-footing and come up with a way to get his wife back.
Open defecation is a serious problem in India, where more than half the population does not have access to toilets. But Singh tackles the issue in the most uninteresting and banal way. Jaya is supposed to be a topper in school and a girl who is “Indian but thinks western”. Yet, she displays characteristics that are the opposite of her so-called liberated thinking. When Keshav and his friends stalk her and use her pictures without her permission, she pretends to be angry for a millisecond, before giving in and agreeing to marry him.
Thankfully, she refuses to live in a house without a toilet; and Keshav, in true Indian tradition, refuses to confront his cantankerous father over what is a basic hygiene issue. Instead, he drives Jaya to the nearest railway station so that she can use the latrine in a train which stops there every morning. Another time, he takes her to a neighbour’s house, and even steals a mobile toilet from a film unit that is shooting in the village.
But “Toilet - Ek Prem Katha” isn’t just about the tepid story of Keshav and Jaya. Singh throws into the mix corrupt government officials, a chief minister whose solution to the problem is to close toilets in government offices (so that his officers realise the pain of not having a toilet), and long-winded speeches that are less effective than public service documentaries.
In the end, since Bollywood thinks every revolution is brought about by heated debates on news channels, that is how our protagonists find their solution – a horde of journalists putting their story in the national spotlight.
Of the cast, Pednekar is stilted and awkward, bursting into earnest speech at every opportunity. Kumar is more restrained, playing the role of the toilet messiah in a more laidback manner. But it isn’t enough to lift this film from the depths of mediocrity.