Should you call it the power of cinema? Of reel life anticipating what could happen in real life? We often underestimate the reach and effect of pop culture – which in India mainly means Bollywood – on how it is quick to catch the zeitgeist and capitalize on it by bending a current issue to fit the formulaic mode (which itself is changing in its setting and narrative tropes). A woman in Ajmer got a divorce from her husband, citing the lack of a toilet at home, a couple of weeks after the release of Toilet, Ek Prem Katha. This happened four years after marriage. Apparently, her husband was not cast in the mould of Akshay Kumar, who defies his orthodox Brahmin father and mounts a crusade against the outraged men of his village to build a toilet in his yard for his beloved wife who has walked out on him, despite theirs being a love marriage.
So here’s the knight on a bike to the rescue of women in rural India who have lumped their fate of using fields to take a dump before the crack of dawn. Since the premise of this film is the indignity of open defecation (obviously, women are the worst sufferers) and how to eradicate it under Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it follows that the humour is mostly scatological. It takes the talent of a Juhi Chaturvedi to write screenplays around bodily functions (and fluids) with wit, understanding and without being offensive. The writers here are Sidharth Singh and Garima Wahal who acknowledge basing their story on an incident in Madhya Pradesh.
Diligent fact-finders have unearthed another incident too. There is also a vague charge of plagiarism of a short film Manini. This happens when a film generates so much pre-release hype, of not only entertainment but entertainment with a capitalised Purpose. So the Ajmer lady has brave predecessors who would rather divorce their insensitive husbands than subject themselves to the indignity of joining the lota parties of the other village women who thoughtfully recruit new brides coming to their benighted environs.
Enter Akshay Kumar, part producer and enthusiastic new supporter of Make India free of Open Defecation campaign. It is a necessary and noble cause. You only wish the partisanship of the present government was less obvious, and the second half didn’t go all over the place – bureaucracy, panchayats, politicians – for an artificial climax.
That criticism apart, Kumar’s Kishen is the best and most believable of the common man’s uncommon hero – the new avatar of the onetime Khiladi of action. Previous to Toilet, Kumar’s best performance in a well-written thriller (based on an unsolved mystery) was Special Chhabees, as the brain-cum-meticulous executer of India’s most audacious heist. Kumar’s performance was precise (as was the rest of the ensemble cast), revealing a cold, calculating mind with an ability to think on his feet when the unexpected happens – as it must, in a heist. Thus began his partnership with Neeraj Pandey (director of Special 26), as co-producer of the recent image makeover films. It was a foray into a new image: a sardonic anti-hero of sorts minus the usual heroics. On reflection, this film was the exception that only proves the clichéd rule.
Heroics of some kind or other will shroud an actor however hard he moves away from his action-hero origins. Over the past few years, there has been a determined path carved out by Akshay Kumar with the help of willing directors, to refurbish his image with the endearing humility and modesty of the common man. Another important director in this career graph is Priyadarshan, the director who tapped the comic timing that was wasted in the Singh is King kind of laboured capers. He pitted Kumar against a brilliant Paresh Rawal in the first Hera Pheri. It is another matter that minus Priyadarshan, the sequels are embarrassingly cringe-worthy and Kumar is hardly animated despite all the pathetic jokes and juvenile plots.
The shedding of the Khiladi avatar and donning the dramatic mantle with infusions of humour where necessary is a rewarding career move. Kumar did show glimpses of the ability to pull off straight, not-too-complex dramatic roles early on in Dhadkan and Yeh Dillagi. In films like Namaste London, where he reprised Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim’s patriotic piety, it was a standard issue Hindi hero, a bit of rustic humour, newly acquired London polish, all wrapped up in cloying sentimentality. The film worked well with the Indian Diaspora, especially mothers concerned about their kids turning into coconuts – brown outside and white within.
One must credit Kumar with using his natural affability to calculated effect. What is missing is the crucial sense of spontaneity a star must generate even as he essays yet another version of the honed-over-the-years image. Shahrukh Khan manages to charm you even when the film is crappy. Kumar has been an efficient hit maker, rather than an inspired actor. He is not the actor who can rise above the script – and to be honest, not many are. Take Jolly LLB 2. It was the same director who delivered a sharp legal/political satire with the underrated Arshad Warsi (when he is not playing Circuit) in the first Jolly LLB. Kumar’s henpecked husband reeked of fakery, and we just could not stomach his transformation into a cause-flaunting do-gooder. Even his reliable comic timing was off.
Kumar persisted with the new track – dramas based on real life. Both Airlift and Rustom came months apart in 2016. Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift glamourized the Malayali businessman who was largely responsible for rescuing stranded Indians in Kuwait into the dapper tycoon who doesn’t value his Indian roots till the whole community is at the mercy of the invading Iraqis (who are reduced to grotesque caricatures). The script was efficient and was engaging enough to work, weaving in a few personalized stories to good dramatic effect. But Rustom! It is a travesty of the Nanavati saga. Kumar wears his naval uniform even in jail. His earnestness rings hollow, and as for the unbelievable resolution, how dare the filmmakers to distort reality for a contrived happy ending? And to think that the jury presided over by Priyadarshan (who directed Kumar in so many films) thought he deserved the best actor award over Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh and Aamir Khan in Dangal! It makes a mockery of our most important awards.
Kumar’s best low key performance was in the under-appreciated Patiala House directed by Nikhil Advani who seemed determined to redeem himself and his star after the disastrous Chandni Chowk to China. Loosely based on Monty Panesar, the Sikh spin bowler who played for England, Patiala House genuinely addressed the dilemma of an ethnic Indian cricketer in the UK born to a father who would rather crush his son’s ambitions rather than see him play for a country that colonised India. They all live happily in Southall’s Little India. The feel good film does make the old Tebbit test (hurled at sub-continental migrants when England played against India or Pakistan) redundant. Kumar brought a rarely seen vulnerability to the submissive Pargat Singh, a loner to whom even his siblings are indifferent. Of course, everything ends with a dramatic flourish, as expected of a sports film torn by familial conflict.
Not every film advertising real life parallels works either for the actors or the director. Milan Luthria’s follow up, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dubara starring Kumar was not a patch on the first where Ajay Devgun’s angst played off against Emraan Hashmi’s conniving charm. So too with the Singh franchise and Hera Pheri sequels. There is a tiresome repetitiveness not only in the script but Kumar’s enthusiasm – which seems unbounded at first glance – dips into vapid, false exuberance and fails to engage.
To give his due, Kumar of the first half of Toilet is in fine fettle. The writing is funny, the observation sharp. Kumar sensibly plays a man of 36, yearning to get married and settle down to domesticity after he has done with dalliances with willing damsels. As is the new norm, north Indian village/small town setting is the new fertile ground for exploration. Kishen is laidback yet edgy, resigned to his bachelordom yet anxious, constantly trying to get better of cheeky younger brother Naru (a very likeable Divyendu Sharma) in verbal duelling. The dreary sameness of life splutters into sudden life when he meets Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar), the feisty educated girl from the neighbouring small town. It is perhaps the first time in our movies that the meet cute happens at the unlocked door of a train toilet where a disgusted Jaya is shocked that the guy doesn’t even wash his hands after taking a leak.
How Keshav’s persistence overcomes the defences of a better educated, better-placed girl who comes from a seemingly more modern family is the crux of the first half. It looks illogical that a topper falls for a 12th pass goofy charmer, but that’s how the story unfolds. The implausible romance works because there is a spark between the outspoken Jaya who shuns coyness and the earthy wooing by a determined suitor. You might get an engineer, doctor of IAS but if you want romance, choose me, goes his argument. And she buys it.
That Toilet flaunts its feminist concerns is taken for granted. The feminist argument is unsubtle and underlined with the Holi sequence of Lathamaar – the day when women take the stick to the husbands, who ward off the blows with a shield. Pronounces Keshav with the pseudo-wisdom of a pop psychologist: they are taking out their pent up frustration and anger against the female in-laws on this one day when the husband becomes a willing target. To underline his wisdom, he asks – in song, of course, after all, it’s Holi – estranged wife Jaya to beat him. Jaya who has never once defecated al fresco, and has a toilet at home, refuses to come back to him until he builds one for her. This is to be his Taj Mahal.
If only the film had moved on the lines of a simple love story where Keshav manages to fulfil this basic demand, the conviction and charm the lead actors bring to their well-etched roles, we would have had another Piku or Vicky Donor. Imitation may be, but not such a letdown. The director goes full throttle into crusader mode, taking on Brahminical superstition, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, brainwashed women who are their own worst enemies, the media, judiciary et al. Overkill and political toadying destroy what could have been a different love story. As co-producer, Kumar is responsible for the route the film opts for – cheap populism and blatant propaganda.
But it seems India is in a mood for love that starts and ends at the toilet door. Perhaps Akshay Kumar knows a thing about ramming home propaganda in the name of entertainment.