Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’s runaway success has taken many by surprise, including its editor-director Shree Narayan Singh
By Vinita Bhatia
In life, just like in movies, dreams sometimes do come true. Shree Narayan Singh is a living proof of that.
While he always harboured aspirations of being a movie director, he was better known for his skills as a film editor. However, as luck would have it, he got his chance to edit and direct a movie with an unusual subject line, front-ended by two National Award-winning actors. And while he was confident that the movie would do well at the box office, little did he imagine that it would become a runaway success and enter the INR 100 crore club, that too within 10 days of its release.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (TEPK) not only impressed cinegoers but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The movie underlines the problem of open defecation in rural India and the need to have a toilet in every household, which is in sync with one of Modi’s pet projects, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. When the film’s trailer was launched, Modi lauded the movie and wrote, “A good effort to further the message of cleanliness. 125 crore Indians have to continue working together to create a Swachh Bharat.”
THE ACCIDENTAL DIRECTOR
Singh started his career in 1992 assisting director Madan Kumar for Parampara, which was aired on Zee TV. After the director’s demise, he started editing the TV series. He then edited Deepti Naval’s TV serials and worked with Mukul Anand for his shows, which is how his editing career took off. Along the way, he met Neeraj Pandey (director of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Baby, Special 26, A Wednesday, etc) and worked on one of his shows, which was the start of a long friendship. Aware that Singh was had his heart set on film direction, Pandey roped him in as an associate director and editor for all his movies.
Later, Pandey and Singh met Garima Wahal and Siddharth Singh, writers of Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela in 2013 to listen to some movie ideas, and Singh liked TEPK’s concept. “The reason I connected with it is because I belong to a small village in Uttar Pradesh called Mahadev. Till recently, when I had to answer nature’s call on my visit there, I had to go to the fields. Since I like cleanliness, I would go in the afternoons when it would be empty and search for a clean spot,” laughed Singh. “I wanted to tell the story of rural India that is still grappling with open defecation issues without being preachy.” This was his only brief to writers Wahal and Singh – to avoid clichés that would make TEPK appear like a documentary and would polarise the audience.
A HANDS-ON APPROACH
In Indian movies, toilet humour is often used as comic respite and is aimed at front-row viewers. To make a movie entirely on this theme is nothing short of bravery. After the first script hearing in 2013, it was revised and registered a year later. In July 2015, the movie was announced and the cast identified.
Luckily for Singh, after listening to the storyline, actor Akshay Kumar agreed to not only play the lead protogonist, Keshav Sharma, but also co-produce the movie along with Pandey. Later, when they approached Bhumi Pednekar to play the female lead of Jaya, she, too, was impressed by TEPK’s simple story about sanitation needs and agreed to come aboard.
However, it was not till last year that the juggernaut started rolling after Singh finished editing MS Dhoni: The Untold Story. And then he had only a week before TEPK’s shooting commenced. Within 30 days, he had to finalise costumes, recce for locations, finish script reading with the artistes, etc.
“TEPK was literally served to me on a platter, courtesy Pandey and Kumar who backed me to the hilt. However, a lot of time was lost between 2013 till 2017 as we got caught up with other assignments. Fortunately, I had no qualms doing everything myself – be it scouting for locations, placating irate villagers threatening to disrupt shooting to negotiating with suppliers – so we made up for lost ground,” Singh happily recalled.
There were times when he would finalise locations at Mathura and Barsana a day before the shoot, while the crew were having their lunch, reconnoitering the area on the same bike that Kumar would later use in the movie. After doing a recce of the location, he would negotiate the rates, return to where the crew was waiting and tell the production team that they had to move base immediately to the location he had seen as they had to shoot there the next day!
“At Friday FilmWorks (a production company founded by Pandey and producer Shital Bhatia), I would often be involved in most of Pandey’s movies in the pre- and post work, be it sound, dubbing or post-production. So during TEPK, I did not feel I was doing anything new, and this was part of the drill, except this time around, I was wearing the director’s tag,” Singh recalled.
When asked whether he was nervous directing his first film with such great performers, Singh said he felt completely at ease as he had learned the ropes of filmmaking by immersing himself in every department at Friday FilmWorks, which helped him stay calm while shooting. He never went to the set with a to-do list, though he had an action plan on what he wanted to achieve. Soon, the DOP and other technicians understood his working style and realised that while he considered their inputs, he would stick to his ideas if he believed they added value to the way he wanted to narrate the story. And this approach worked and Singh managed to deliver the film right on schedule, even after spending two months on post-production – something quite unheard of in Bollywood!
TAKING THE ROUGH WITH THE SMOOTH
TEPK recently got recognition from the UN Environment, which shared a video made by Sterling Video on its official Twitter page with a caption, “Open defecation = a health concern that touches nearly a billion lives @akshaykumar & @psbhumi address this global issue in @ToiletTheFilm.” While the rustic cinematography, camaraderie between Kumar and Divyendu Sharma and Pednekar’s feisty acting won critical and audience applause, others felt the message about the need for toilets and perils of open defecation did not need a 155 minutes long cinematic canvas. Singh, who is also the film’s editor, feels otherwise. “I wanted to narrate my story in a particular way. Another director would approach it differently and then the length would vary; so it’s a subjective opinion,” he said. “As a director, my concern was executing TEPK in a manner that would allow the concept’s brilliance to shine through performances, breaking the myths that have caused the nation to have insufficient toilets. As an editor, the trick was in being as brutal with my own film as I would be, when it came to trimming, if someone else had directed the film.”
He recalled when TEPK’s trailer was released, many felt he had revealed a lot. But Kumar and he stood their grounds, and the public’s curiousity was piqued by the promo.
Singh also imbibed the corporate strategy of keeping post-production processes lean by spreading it across various agencies, which helped in cost and time efficiencies. For instance, sound mixing was done at Balaji Studios, Aradhana Studio did foley, Fluiidmask and Post House did the VFX, while all the editing work was done at Friday FilmWorks. Many of them did not send bills for services rendered, having worked with Singh over the years. This speaks volumes about their faith in him not just as a professional but also as a person.
This goodwill is what the Singh wants to garner – and he knows he has reaped it because of his skills as an editor. He is aware editing is his claim-to-fame and he will continue it, but directing is what he would like to pursue. While continuing to bask in TEPK’s success, he wants to showcase offbeat movies with compelling stories that will appeal to a cross-section of cinegoers. Hopefully, he will treat the audience to another thoughtfully-made mainstream movie packed with pictorial poise.