If we were to rename the second half of Toilet, Ek Prem Katha in the great tradition of Madhur Bhandarkar movie names, we'd probably just call it 'BJP Scheme'. And an honest description of the content of this second half, in the Karan Johar school of nomenclature, would read: Kabhi Modi, Kabhi Dumb.
Because that's exactly what the second half of the film dwindles into: an irrational, melodramatic saga with unbridled praise for government schemes. So as to make sure that you cannot absolutely escape the misery of having paid a few hundred rupees to watch an elaborate PR exercise for a government campaign, a character playing a chief minister proudly says: "Agar hamari pradhan mantri jee notebandi kar sakte hai toh..." For a moment you're left wondering why he's making demonetisation sound as if the government air dropped red velvet cupcakes across the country or distributed biryani for free. The post-interval second half collapses so brutally that you'll almost forget the redeeming bits of the first half.
Keshav (Akshay Kumar) lives in a UP village and runs a cycle shop with his brother and father. His father— an intimidating, fanatical Brahmin—calls the shots in the family. He is steeped in superstition and generally preoccupied with making the lives of his sons miserable. Then, one day, Keshav runs into Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar) on a train. As men in 'mainstream' films of our times are prone to—he falls in love with Jaya because ... she is a woman/we need a film/we need an 'explanation' for said man stalking the woman in question.
Then, like good Indian men on screen—wait, off screen as well—Keshav follows Jaya around. Smiling to himself, clicking pictures of Jaya on the sly, smiling at the pictures, and then going back to ogling her. Jaya initially shows a low threshold for the famed creep-hood of Bollywood heroes and gives Keshav one good tongue-lashing. Only to fall for him with a resonating thud the moment—like most entitled stalkers you've met on Facebook—Keshav tells her she's wrong in not seeing what's between them. You wonder what that may be—except patriarchal privilege, which isn't very romance-inducing—but soon, frothy songs burst on screen indicating your ovaries may have turned into stone and love is blooming.
Jaya gets married to Keshav but their honeymoon lasts only till the next morning when she discovers Keshav doesn't have a toilet inside the house and she'll have to join the other women of the village to defecate in the open. She's furious and her husband meets her exasperation with callous nonchalance. The 20-25 minutes that follow—involving Jaya's unrelenting attempts to oppose her father-in-law's bizarre imposition and Keshav's attempts to find stop gap solutions—are actually somewhat engaging. In Jaya, you see glimpses of a woman who's ready to dig in her heels and fight for her right and occasionally relenting for the sake of a relationship that makes her vulnerable. One day, when Jaya is inside the toilet of a train, it leaves the station. Tired to going to these great lengths to relieve herself, she leaves and tells Keshav she'll not return till he gets a toilet in the house.
In these bits, Toilet... is engaging and unapologetically critical of superstitions imposed on personal freedoms and choices in the name of religion. At a time religious sentiments are easily flared and egos are more fragile that egg shells, it is commendable that the movie at least tries to lay bare the hypocrisies of our 'religious' zealots. But soon, it gets reduced to a grinding, preachy moral science lecture.
The saving grace of the film is undoubtedly Pednekar who delivers a convincing, engrossing performance as a small-town girl who's ready to take on the world for her ideals yet hopelessly manipulated by her feelings for a man she loves. Akshay Kumar has played the callous rake-turned-righteous crusader way too many times and therefore sort of sails through Keshav's role without too many sparks.
Apart from the unsophisticated story-telling in the second half, the film tries to expand from the personal to the public and starts losing grip over the narrative in the process. As long as it kept to the power struggle within one family, it was on track. The moment in expands its scope and tries to comment on society in sweeping generalisations devoid of nuance, it starts looking myopic and gimmicky.
For example, while making statements about governments and people's superstitions, it forgets to take into account that a great section of our population cannot afford to spend money to build toilets in their village homes. Or when Keshav is seen shaming and bullying women for going to the fields and accuses them of having no 'shame' in being 'naked' in public, he shows little understanding of how several women don't enjoy the financial agency to negotiate power structures at home and demand amenities for themselves. (The protagonist—Jaya—is shown to belong to a middle class family and is an university topper.) And that's exactly why the second half comes across as an unsubtle PR blitzkrieg for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Now if someone feels the government has done a smashing job with some scheme, they're most welcome to sing praises for them. Only, how is it fair to expect film-lovers to shell out money to watch this ode to the BJP when that can be experienced, in great abundance, on social media anyway?