Over the past couple of months Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat has dominated the headlines in the country. Now that it has finally released, simultaneously offending both conservatives and liberals while still making it to the 100 crore club, perhaps all that has to be said, analysed, criticised and found amusing about the film will finally die down. The coming weekend sees Akshay Kumar starrer PadMan, and if you ask us, we are betting on it to be the film that’s bound to change the narrative of mainstream Indian cinema for years to come.
Directed by R.Balki the film is based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, an innovator obsessed with the idea of creating cost-effective sanitary pads for rural women in India. While the film has been fictionalised, it draws inspiration form Muruganantham’s fascinating journey that has been covered by both national and international media. A 9th-grade dropout from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Muruganantham belongs to the bottom of the economic ladder. His quest began when he discovered that his wife belongs to that majority of women who don’t use sanitary pads because of a lack of knowledge and financial constraints. The concern over this led him to research sanitary pads and women’s’ health for over seven years before he designed a pad which could be easily made by women using low costing raw materials from rural areas. Though for this self-taught innovator, success was not an easy road. Before he received the very well deserved National Innovation Foundation Award from the President of India, and made it to the list of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World 2014’ he was tagged as a sexual deviant and consequently abandoned by both his wife and mother. Today he has been united with his family and having supplied 643 machines across 23 states in the country, dreams of making all developing countries 100% sanitary pad using nations.
PadMan is not the first film to give voice to the remarkable story of Muruganantham—Amit Virmani’s ‘Menstrual Man’ (2013) was the first to document his life. Sadly this documentary was not released in India as the Central Board Of Film Certification asked for a title changed which was denied by the director. In June 2017 Phullu, an independent Indian movie about a handyman from Uttar Pradesh, who strives to improve the standards of menstrual hygiene in his village was applauded for its good intentions. The director Abhishek Saxena told Scroll that the film was a fictional story, not based on Muruganantham’s life but inspired by people who had taken similar initiatives to improve menstrual health.
So that still makes PadMan the first film to bring Muruganantham’s story to the silver screen and more importantly the first commercial Bollywood film to break the taboo that surrounds menstruation in Indian society.
For women in India, ‘that time of the month’ comes with a regular set of trials and tribulations. While a privileged minority have the resources for menstrual hygiene and might even be able to openly talk about ‘killer cramps’ and other period woes, the ground reality in India is starkly different.
In a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in 2015-2016, it was recorded that approximately 70% of girls across India had no knowledge of menstruation at the onset of menarche. When it comes to menstrual hygiene, women in rural areas suffer the most; 93% of these women don’t use sanitary pads. The majority of rural women lack information, finances and the accessibility to proper hygiene; they resort to using rags, pieces of cloth, husk, sand and even ash. Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs) are 70% more common among women who use such unhygienic materials and 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, which affects the maternal mortality rate as well. Girls are typically absent for 20% of the school year, most of them even dropping out of school after the 5th grade, when their menstrual cycle begins. Physical discomfort, pain and disease only form the tip of the iceberg with menstrual health in the country. The taboo around a woman’s period is so strong that a culture of silence is being appropriated, where women grow to look at their own body in shame and disgust.
For PadMan’s producer Twinkle Khanna the film is a way to break this archaic stigma. In an interview with the Indian Express she said that, “We [along with husband Akshay Kumar] have met various ministries to make sure that the film [PadMan] is watched by school girls and their principals. And we are hoping that if nothing else, at least the conversation starts that the same girls who can’t afford to buy sanitary pads, can now go to their parents and say that they don’t need fairness creams, but need sanitary pads because they need to go to school and join the workforce.” Khanna who has also written the book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad inspired by Muruganantham’s life is the trailblazer behind mainstream Bollywood taking on such a sidelined social issue. When asked what drew her to making PadMan, in the same interview with the The Indian Express she confessed, “It was a man talking about something that even women shy away from. It was also about the transformation from being an uneducated man to an innovator. These things about the story gripped me...”
Though all is not rosy for PadMan. One of the biggest contention that surrounds the film is that though Muruganantham is of Tamilian descent, the character of Akshay Kumar who plays him in the film has been shown as a North-Indian protagonist. Kumar’s critically acclaimed film Airlift (2016) which is based on the life of Mathunny Mathews—a Malayali Christian businessman who initiated the mass civilian evacuation of non-resident Indians from Kuwait was written into the movie as a Punjabi character. A convenient whitewashing of South-Indian identities especially in stories linked to personal histories and lived experiences is unethical, even in the name of creative freedom.
However whether or not PadMan and Airlift have used this as a tactic to become a crowd pleaser or not, Kumar’s characters from these and his other recent films are still redefining the archetype Bollywood hero-one whose character is more significant than the star who plays it. Last year the movies by his contemporaries like Shah Rukh Khan’s Harry Met Sejal and Salman Khan’s Tubelight, both which hinged on loose scripts heavily relied on the aura of its stars failed at the box-office. Whereas Kumar’s Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017), in which he gave voice to the dearth of female toilets in India won the audience’s applause. If PadMan follows the same successful fate we are hoping that mainstream Bollywood will see more socially driven and yet mindfully entertaining films.
PadMan will release on the 26th of January, 2018. To watch the trailer of the film click here.
Feature image courtesy of Arunachalam Muruganantham via Twitter.
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