Movie Review: Toilet — Ek Prem Katha (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (“Toilet: A Love Story“) has its heart in the right place, using humor and romance to address a social problem often deemed too private for public discussion. It falls short in a number of ways, with some issues that are particularly problematic for non-Hindi speakers.

Akshay Kumar plays Keshav, a small-town guy whose love life is held hostage by his extremely religious father, Panditji (Sudhir Pandey), who sees all kinds of problems in his son’s astrological chart. Keshav’s desire to marry takes on a new urgency when he meets Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), a feisty and principled college student.

(I was prepared to give major kudos to the movie for acknowledging that the character played by 49-year-old Kumar is not only old for a bachelor but significantly older than his lady-love. Then it’s revealed that Keshav is 36, making the age difference between him and college gal Jaya less than the twenty-one years separating Kumar and Pednekar in real life.)

The lovebirds trick Panditji into allowing them to marry, only to discover an even bigger problem: Keshav’s house doesn’t have a bathroom. Jaya discovers this when a group of ladies rap on her window in the pre-dawn hours following her wedding night, urging her to follow them into the fields, lest she miss her only opportunity to relieve herself all day.

Toilet‘s most laudable quality is that it forces viewers who are used to readily accessible bathroom facilities to confront the practicalities of how life works without such access. For those of us who don’t leave the house without knowing the location of the nearest public loo, Toilet depicts a nightmare scenario that is a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people in India.

Jaya’s demand that Keshav install a toilet in their home is met with resistance on multiple fronts, from Keshav’s “what’s the big deal?” indifference to anger from neighbors who see her demand as an attack upon their culture. This is where Toilet‘s ability to connect with an international audience falters.

For everyone like Jaya who grew up with a full bathroom in the home — whether in India or abroad — the benefits are obvious. Not only do bathrooms improve cleanliness and provide privacy, they are safer for women. Jaya’s father (played by Atul Srivastava) mentions instances of women being raped and killed while relieving themselves in fields, and having a toilet in the home is a simple way to protect his daughter.

The case against having an in-home toilet is harder to explain to Western viewers, and Toilet doesn’t do a particularly good job in doing so. Some of the resistance — particularly from the village women — is a matter of pride, Jaya’s demand taken as evidence of snobbishness born from too much education. There are also religious considerations cited by the village elders that may be well-known within India but aren’t explained sufficiently for those unfamiliar with the precedent.

In fact, when one of the village elders quotes scripture as evidence, his words are subtitled as “[Sanskrit chant].” The same subtitle is applied when Keshav counters with his own verse. This problem occurs again during a song whose lyrics are translated as just “[folk song],” and written Hindi isn’t transcribed at all. These omissions put up barriers for non-Hindi speakers.

It’s hard to get a sense of who the intended audience for Toilet is. If it’s middle-class city dwellers, Toilet does little to foster empathy for rural folk resistant to the idea of public or private toilets. If it’s those same rural folk, Toilet feels like more of a protracted scolding than a persuasive case for modernization. Even in the film, the villagers violently reject Keshav’s efforts to build a loo for Jaya — until they suddenly don’t.

Keshav is an interesting character when considered in terms of the present political climate in India and in democracies in the West. He doesn’t initially have strong convictions; he just wants everyone to stop fighting so things can return to the way they were. It takes Jaya moving back in with her parents for Keshav to realize that this issue is non-negotiable for her, regardless of her affection for him. Only through suffering consequences of his own is he able to understand the injustice that the status quo forces upon women.

Kumar and Pednekar are both terrific in Toilet, adorable during the story’s romantic phase and heartbreaking as their situation grows more desperate. Divyendu Sharma is also very good as Keshav’s brother, Naru. Too bad the movie overall can’t match the strength of its cast.

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