An earnest child travelling to the seat of power in Delhi to get justice for a loved one is a theme visited more than once by Hindi cinema over the years, though perhaps most famously in the 1957 film Ab Dilli Dur Nahin. The problem of open defecation in India too has captured the imagination of Hindi film makers in recent years. The Akshay Kumar-starrer Toilet: Ek Prem Katha created a box-office storm in 2017, and in 2018 came the lesser known Halkaa by director Nila Madhab Panda, about a child slumdweller on the outskirts of Delhi determined to have a toilet in his home.
Mere Pyare Prime Minister movie review: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehras toilet katha is a mix of heartening intent, jagged treatment
A still from Mere Pyare Prime Minister. Youtube screengrab
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Mere Pyare Prime Minister (MPPM) tells the story of a child in Mumbai whose campaign for a toilet in his slum begins when he realises the danger his mother faces while relieving herself in darkened public places since there is no toilet available to her. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha was about women's dignity, Halkaa was about human dignity at large, MPPM is about women's safety. The subject is significant and a discussion on it essential, but a film has to be more than the issues it hopes to raise, and this one suffers in the storytelling and casting departments.
Firstly, it takes just too long to get to the point where little Kanhaiya a.k.a. Kannu discovers his cause. The narrative picks up from then on, but the writing of the protagonist is not particularly novel or deep, and the actor himself does not manage to give the character an edge.
Young Om Kanojiya who plays Kannu is not as dynamic as the many excellent child artistes Bollywood has discovered in the past decade nor quite as talented. I found myself far more drawn to Prasad Sawant and Adarsh Bharti, who play his sharp, witty friends Nirala and Ringtone respectively - if given better fleshed out roles, these two boys have the potential to match up even to the likes of Hetal Gada and Krrish Chhabria who blazed across the screen in Nagesh Kukunoor's Dhanak in 2016, the ensemble cast of Chillar Party and Harsh Mayar from I Am Kalam.
The conversations between Kannu, Nirala and Ringtone are often sweet and funny, but there are not enough of these in the film to up its energy levels.
The scene-stealer among the children in MPPM is a girl who gets the least screen time of the lot. Syna Anand who plays Kannu's buddy Mangla is a riot in that brief passage when she confesses to his mother and hers that she knows where Kannu has disappeared. That scene is the high point of MPPM both in terms of writing and acting. There is too little of Ms Anand, however, in the film.
The two main adults are far better conceived than the child protagonist. Kannu's mother Sargam (the lovely Anjali Patil from Newton) and her relationship graph with her friend Pappu (Niteesh Wadhwa) are more captivating than anything else in MPPM. She has been written with sensitivity and care, he with understanding, and both actors deliver quietly effective performances. There is also a small supporting character called Rabiya, played by Rasika Agashe, who left me keen to see more of her.
It feels as if the writers — Manoj Mairta, Hussain Dalal and Mehra himself — are less comfortable with little ones than they are with grown-ups, which is obviously a big handicap in a film with a child at the centre of the action. This is perhaps why the trio stretch the definition of cuteness and appear to be trying too hard too often to elicit awwws from the audience, never more so than in that scene before the Gateway of India where the children's begging and getting inappropriately physical with passers by are treated with an "oh look how chweet they are" tone. (What follows at a police station, on the other hand, is far more relatable and fun.)
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra has an uneven filmography. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was thoroughly enjoyable, Aks was deeply problematic, but for me at least he will always remain the man who gave us the gut-wrenching Rang De Basanti. Mehra is not the only one not living up to expectations with Mere Pyare Prime Minister. The music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy is as inconsistent as the film itself: 'Bajaa Bajaa Bajaa Dhol Bajaa Re' is perky and conjures up nostalgia for a musical era gone by with its use of C Ramachandra's charming 'Are Ja Re Hat Natkhat' from the 1959 classic Navrang, but the title track is annoying. Gulzar's lyrics are nice but not memorable. A word here though for DoP Pawel Dyllus who has the challenging task of showing various characters doing potty or surrounded by potty in authentic locations, yet manages to make the point each time without being intentionally repulsive.
Mere Pyare Prime Minister no doubt means well. The fact that so many Indians still do not have toilets in 2019 is a matter of national shame, and it is a relief to see a mainstream Hindi film maker zeroing in on the risk that poor women take every day with the very basic, very human act of defecation. The most commendable aspect of the screenplay is that it does not consign a woman survivor of sexual violence to eternal mournful misery, nor turn her into Hindi filmdom's populist rape-survivor-turned-vengeful-vigilante stereotype (Zakhmi Aurat) or find a relative to take on that role (Kaabil, Mom), allowing her instead to try to move on with her life with laughter, her earlier verve and an attempt at normalcy. This is a socially important position to take, which is what makes it even more unfortunate that the overall treatment and the casting of the leading little man are inadequate.
Despite its heartwarming intentions, liberal soul and some interesting actors, Mere Pyare Prime Minister is an underwhelming experience.