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The lack of indoor plumbing in some rural areas of India, and more specifically the lack of indoor toilets in many rural Indian homes, has been singled out as a key roadblock to India joining modernity. Not having such facilities at home is often a practice carried over from an era when a large agrarian populace spent longer hours in the field than in towns or offices. What do we do? In comes Toilet: A Love Story. While visually striking, romantic and even funny, the movie falls short of fully exploiting the complexities and nuances demanded by the lack of indoor facilities as indicative of a larger social gap.
Bad news often travels in pairs. For Keshav Sharma (Kumar), pining away running his father’s small business in a village in northern India, calamity strikes on two fronts. On the one hand, at thirty something, he is yet to find a suitable bride. That reality is only exacerbated by his second problem. As luck would have it, after meeting the woman of his dreams, the outspoken beauty Jaya Joshi (Padneker) and marrying her, the other shoe drops. Because Keshav’s household lacks indoor facilities, his vivacious new bride refuses to use outdoor facilities and threatens to move back to her parents’ house unless Keshav installs an indoor toilet.
Toilet’s premise does not lack urgency or merit. There are enough up close and personal encounters of folks —mostly women—out in the field making a pre-dawn nature call. Urination in public—mostly by men—also gets screen time. That some women are harassed—or worse—out in the field is also hinted at by gawkers—mostly men—out on inexplicable pre-dawn pleasure rides. These elements also add to safety concerns highlighted by some well-publicized news stories involving attacks on women in the field. These are valid touch points in the yet developing national story of the Indian government’s call to build enough toilets to support 100% of the rural population’s needs over the next few years.
As much as the writers posit this as a gender issue, however, it is not. Buying into that would validate the movie’s view that is primarily women who are inconvenienced because men can, ahem, go anywhere. Biological imperative—and hence bodily functions—would be pressing for men as much as for women. Also, regardless of when and where toilets are built and what decision-making authorities consider when granting such construction permits, happiness—unlike how Toilet would have it—cannot be legislated.
As leads, Kumar and Padneker offer elevated romantic pairing that has certainly helped boost the huge box office gains Toilet: A Love Story has garnered. Toilet is also shouldered by an ear-worthy musical score, lined up by Vickey Prasad’s “Hans Mat Pagli”—a folksy tune in tandem with Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghosal versions and “Bhakheda” by Sukhwinder Singh and Shreya Ghosal. The earthy score, penned by Siddharth-Garima, has no Bhangra wedding tune and no neo-disco tent events and succeeds in underlining the romantic and non-satirical appeal of the story.
Compared to, say, Peepli: Live, however, where Aamir Khan staged the acutely bitter reality of suicide rates amongst rural farmers played by lesser known players who did a remarkable job in channeling unassailable economic forces tearing apart their lives and then resorting to suicide as a way out, Toilet: A Love Story struggles from a lack of that same anonymity. An A-list superstar such as Kumar inside a character that struggles with lack of indoor plumbing does not flow. Toilet: A Love Story, may be too big a stage for this intimate rural social story.
The mainstreaming of vox pop events of the day have become standard fare for Hindi movies. At an extrinsic level culturally, the rise of religious fundamentalism jabbed at by PK, the search for elusive high profile international terrorists fictitiously chronicled in Phantom and Baby, the always-tense relations between India and Pakistan taken up in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Filmistan and Hasina Bhaag Jayegi are but a few examples. While it is indeed refreshing to have lack of proper indoor sanitation taken up as a cause in such a big banner project, Toilet: A Love Story misses the mark in effectively telling this story.