PadMan is based on the real-life inspirational story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who famously invented a machine that led to the creation of a low-cost sanitary napkin, and created a real-life revolution.
There is absolutely no doubt that the subject and the intention of the film is applause-worthy. In India, the ‘shame’ associated with ‘that time of the month’ is still so strong and so pervasive that anything that brings out into the open is cause to cheer, and a film starring a big star is sometimes the best way to break age-old taboos.
But PadMan left me conflicted because I kept struggling to find the film buried under the heavy-handed messaging, especially in the repetitive first half.
By the time Gayatri (Apte), Lakshmikant Chauhan’s ( Kumar) comely new bride utters the word ‘sharm’ the nth time, her beautiful big eyes swimming, it’s coming out of our ears. Because Lakshmikant, a resident of picturesque Maheshwar, a small town in MP, is hell-bent upon saving his wife and the other women of his family from the use of unhygienic rags, and subsequent lethal infection. And nothing will deter him: not the bewildered Gayatri who can’t understand his obsession with this ‘auraton ki baat’, nor his horrified sisters, his mother, or the other enraged women around him.
This is a country where girls and women with the ‘curse’ are ex-communicated when they have their periods, not allowed to come into the kitchen, or touch ‘achaar’ because it will ‘go bad’, or any other human being because they will ‘become impure’. Not just having your periods is shameful, but even buying sanitary towels is a clandestine affair (the shopkeeper will wrap the packet in double layers so it can’t be seen). Women live in terror of the blood seeping through and staining their clothes: it is as natural as the monthly cycle but it can be the cause of deathly mortification. And young men make nasty, sexist remarks about ‘five day test matches’ (I hadn’t heard that one before, but I’m sure there are worse epithets for menstruating women).
Akshay Kumar is now consistently green-lighting socially-relevant films, and that is fine and laudable (Pad Man is produced by his wife Twinkle Khanna, a witty commentator on social mores). His 2017 Toilet: Ek Prem Katha started conversations around having toilets within the house. I liked both what it was trying to say and how it was doing so: it was done with a degree of flair.
PadMan is as worthy, but it isn’t a particularly good film. It has tonal problems, swinging between commonplace-ness and flat-out filmi-ness, because it is trying to appeal to many constituencies at the same time: a song to celebrate the onset of menstruation of a little girl uses the problematic word ‘nakel’, which means ‘to be led by the nose’. The song gives the perennially weepy Gayatri to swing her waist, but achieves little else. The arrival of perky city girl Pari (Kapoor) perks up the proceedings, even if she is used to invoke a clumsy, after-the-thought romantic angle. Pari’s character is a figment of the filmmakers’ imagination. She ‘helps’ Lakshmikant realize his dreams, speaking to the urban girls who call their periods ‘chums’; the ‘seedha-palla’ wearing Gayatri is the spokesperson for those who call it ‘maahvaari’ or ‘mahina’.
The solution of ‘have-pad-will-solve-menstrual-problems’ is simplistic, and yes, patriarchal. A little nuance (about how menstruation is not just a physically painful occurrence but an instrument to keep women firmly in their place) would have gone a long way in making PadMan deeper and more satisfyingly complex, but this is not that kind of film.
It is the kind of film which has to focus on its big male star for obvious reasons. We are left with the man of the movie, and the reason why this film has been made. Akshay gets fully into the role while trying to get in touch with the ‘feminine’ side of him, with some nice strokes: he is the film, in a sense, and he is both earnest and likeable enough, even if he is in familiar do-good mode, and even if we wish his women looked his age. And, even more crucially, that PadMan paid as much attention to its medium as its message.